Labor appreciation

Labor appreciation

Vayachel — Exodus 35:1-38:20

Of all the Jewish gifts to the world, none is as valuable as Shabbat. So it has been claimed, at least, by authorities in every age. The midrash, for example, compares observing Shabbat to “keeping all of Torah.” Abraham Joshua Heschel called it Judaism’s “cathedral in time”; in Ahad Ha’am’s view, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.”

Indeed, for two weeks in a row now, the sedra has stressed Shabbat. This week, Moses contends, “On the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.” The prohibition against work is preceded by an anticipatory explanation, “These are the things Adonai has commanded you to do.”

To do!” How strange: to be told we will learn what God wants us to do and then be warned about what we may not do. Which is it?

Perhaps we are so conditioned to appreciate Shabbat that we miss a larger point. After hearing, “These are the things Adonai has commanded you to do,” but before being advised “You shall have a Sabbath of complete rest,” we get, “On six days you shall do work.” Maybe the point is not so much a Shabbat of “not doing” as it is the six days of “doing” that precede it. Is it possible that of all the Jewish gifts to the world, none is as valuable as our attitude to work?

Once upon a time, when most people worked like slaves, we rightly emphasized Shabbat as our most valuable insight into the human condition. But things are changing: In America, at least, what we lack most is not Judaism’s attitude toward rest but its attitude toward work.

At least as important as Judaism’s rest ethic is its work ethic, and the two go together. Both are linked to God — as God rested on Shabbat, so too do we. But our six days of work are no punishment; they too are modeled after God, who created the world before resting. The pagan deities of antiquity were not overly fond of work, it should be noted. Our Jewish God was. That was as inventive an idea as the parallel notion of a God who rested.

The Bible does know the negative view of work — exiled from Eden, Adam and Eve must live by “the sweat of their brow.” But Judaism never adopted that lesson. It exalted work as the human manifestation of God’s creative enterprise: The technical term avoda, which denotes the ancient system of sacrificial worship, is also the word for ordinary labor. Work can be human endeavor at its finest. That is why this recession is so debilitating. It not only takes bread off people’s tables, it also robs would-be workers of the opportunity to work as God did.

If we usually notice the lesson of Shabbat rest, not of weekday work, it is because we still live in the shadow of heavy industrialization and its abuse of labor. Our immigrant ancestors were impoverished sweat-shop workers, after all. As long as some people still endure such conditions, the ideal of Shabbat is hardly beside the point.

But it is not the whole point. Jewish history is also known for its at-work success stories: German-born banking families like the Seligmans, Guggenheims, and Goldmans and merchandisers like Levi Strauss, Adam Gimbel, and Edward Filene. The Eastern European sweat-shop generation was just that — a single generation whose children escaped poverty because of parents who put their faith in education, hard work, and excellence.

Those children, by and large, followed Moses Mendelssohn’s insistence on “doing something,” not just “making something,” as a capitalist argument for investing in ideas. Even our Jewish socialists shared those values — Israel’s founding Zionists (like A.D. Gordon) saw manual labor as ennobling. They didn’t always keep Shabbat, but they viewed self-sufficiency through labor as the most divine of all virtues.

It is no accident that in its post-socialist stage, Israel boasts the highest rate of research and development and the highest percentage of startups in the world. Its per capita venture-capital investment is 2.5 times higher than the United States’, 30 times higher than Europe’s, 80 times higher than China’s, and 350 times higher than India’s.

America’s temporary problem is a recession, with people out of work altogether. But the long-term problem is our failure to appreciate work as an end in itself, not just something that takes us away from family and leisure time — what we have to do while awaiting the weekend. If work is an ethic, we are distinctly unethical and can learn from Judaism that work is God-given and divinely inspired. When pursued with single-minded intent of excellence, it can yield some of life’s deepest satisfactions.

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