First Encounters With Work

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
September 16, 2014
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I wasn’t prepared. After enjoying the benefits of childhood, (being served prepared meals, having my material needs provided for, and being nurtured, etc.) how was I supposed to go and start looking for work? However, after realizing that I needed to fill open time in my schedule and that I needed to have my own money for things that I wanted to pursue, I shed my timidity and jumped into the game.

I tried pretty much everything: started a snow shoveling business, opened a baseball card store, worked at a sandwich shop, pet store, non-profits, electronics store, in catering, and, of course, babysitting and lemonade-standing. Each endeavor had its own trying moments of embarrassment. The pet store required me to walk around the mall with a boa constrictor around my neck and an alligator in my hands trying to find little kids to take pictures with the creatures and hopefully have their parents buy them. The investment firm asked me to take business cards out of public fish bowls so the firm could pursue new clients. The sandwich shop asked me to wear a sandwich costume on a major street corner to promote their store. I begrudgingly accepted the snake role but steadfastly refused the business card and sandwich offers/demands. I learned that one should never sacrifice one’s own values or integrity simply for a job request.

From these early positions, I learned so much about perseverance, humility, quality performance, and relationships. I learned the true meaning of “difficult people,” and just how challenging working with certain individuals can be. I learned that you couldn’t just check the box, as it were, when getting tasks done if you want to advance. I learned how important it is to be generous and patient with others while one the job. Finally, I learned that whom one works with and what one produces really matters. I further learned that pride and joy are really essential to sustain one’s work efforts.

The Jewish tradition, overall, places a very high priority on the value of work. In Ethics of the Fathers, Shemayah taught ehav et hamlacha (to love work). (Avot 1:10). And, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said:

Great is work because even Adam did not taste food until he had performed work, as it is said, “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and preserve it” (Genesis 2:15). Only then do we read, “The Lord God commanded the man: From every tree of the garden you may eat,” (Genesis 2:16, Avot de Rabbi Natan, chapter 11).

There is something spiritually and morally necessary about “seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik taught that there was a fundamental duality to humans:

The dual religious experience of majesta and humilitas Dei has had its impact upon Judaic morality. There are, indeed, as we have indicated above, two moralities: a morality of majesty and a morality of humility. The moral gesture of cosmic man aims at majesty or kingship. The highest moral achievement for cosmic man is sovereignty; man wants to be king. God is king of the world; man, imitating God, quests for kingship, not only over a limited domain, but over the far and distant regions of the cosmos, as well. Man is summoned by God to be the ruler, to be king, to be victorious. Victory, as the most important aspect of kingship, is an ethical goal and the human effort to achieve victory is a moral one, provided the means man employs are of a moral nature, (Majesty and Humility, 33-34).

There is a humble dimension to humans (powerless beings that return to the earth), but there is also a majestic dimension (powerful to create change in the world). We must embrace the limits of our work (humility) but also embrace our work to be as effective as possible (majestic). It is not accidental but intentional that our lives should be consumed with labor. Rabbenu Bachya wrote:

“Mankind’s livelihood requires his active participation. Apart from the period of (the Israelites’) wandering in the wilderness, and other times of miraculous intervention, there is no manna from heaven. This active participation of man in the creation of his own wealth is a sign of spiritual greatness. In this respect we are, as it were, imitators of God,” (Kad Kemach, Tamari, 31).

In fact the Rabbis even argued that the commandment of the Sabbath requires not only rest on the seventh day but also work on the previous six days (Avot de Rabbi Natan version A chapter 11, Ketubot 5.5). More recently, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that human work was at the core of our dignity and sanctified purpose. “When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands –man – to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it,” (Halakhic Man, 101). Still today, sadly, many work only to survive. The ideal is for individuals to work pursuing their passions and actualizing their unique talents. I truly dream that this is not an impractical ideal, a reality only for the privileged, but that labor can help us all to ascend to perfect our souls and the world.

It is important that we encourage kids and young adults to experiment with various types of work. We must encourage every up-and-coming generation to seek out new professional experiences so as to find what they are truly passionate about. It is an imperative that we work to create a more just world where people can have the ability to seek out the work that best suits them and not merely be forced into a lifetime of unchosen monotonous labor.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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