- Category: DEVELOPING A TORAH PERSONALITY
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THE REDEMPTIVE QUALITY OF WORK
The thrust of all this is that there is significance to work, quite apart from the need to pay your bills. There is, if you will, a certain redemptive quality to work, in psychological, social and religious terms. This notion is not uniquely Jewish. When most people hear about the importance of work, they immediately think of the Puritans and the Puritan work ethic. The Puritans, of course, were very much influenced by Judaism. Certainly, however, there are famous propagators of this general view in circles which are neither Jewish nor Puritan.
In Thomas Carlyle’s early work Sartor Resartus, he describes his own spiritual crisis. He speaks first of what he describes as “The Everlasting No,” the voice of cynicism and skepticism, but even beyond that of ennui, of a sense of the lack of purpose, meaning, direction and substance in life. From there he moves on to describe “The Center of Indifference,” which is still a very lowkey type of existence, and then progresses to “The Everlasting Yea,” that which is assertive and positive in relation to the world and human existence. At the heart of the chapter on “The Everlasting Yea” is the notion of work. For Carlyle, the great prophet of work is the late eighteenth- century, early nineteenth-century German writer Goethe. In a famous line, Carlyle says, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe!” Work is central to “The Everlasting Yea” precisely because of its redemptive capacity.
In that context, one can view work as part of the collective human responsibility to establish human hegemony and to impose a certain character on nature as a whole. The ennobling conception of work, the sense of challenge, the work ethic (in contrast to a sybaritic, hedonistic existence) can also be found in a secular context. But for us, this is not simply a question of engaging in a great Romantic quest to place the world under human imprint. This is part of what we are doing for God, part of our relationship to Him: we are His guards and we are His laborers. This presents matters in a totally different perspective.
A DIVINE MANDATE
Our attempt to place the human imprint on nature is part of God’s mandate: “Fill the earth and master it, and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth” (Bereishit 1:28). But whereas that mandate in the first chapter is formulated in terms of rights, in the second chapter (“le-ovdah u-leshomrah”) it is formulated in terms of obligation— it is part of our responsibility, part of our task.
This notion of the centrality and importance of work, as opposed to pursuing a life of leisure and hedonism, runs counter to the message that is inundating the Western world. The implicit idea in all the crass advertising you see is that, ideally, you shouldn’t work at all; ideally, you would retire when you’re eighteen. Small wonder that many people have reached the conclusion that the less they work, the better off they are. The notion of leisure has suddenly become a problem in sociological and moral terms. There is a whole literature about the problem of leisure, precisely because work is perceived as a necessary evil, and not as spiritually redemptive.
For us, however, the sense of effort, of striving, above all of working (in Milton’s phrase) “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye,” is very central. “Le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” the sense of the importance of work and a work-oriented life, is part of the universal mandate; it is part of what we, as benei-Torah, understand to be central to our being.
GLATT KOSHER HEDONISM
I mention this point particularly to an American audience. In recent years, one observes on the American scene a terribly disturbing phenomenon: the spread of hedonistic values, but with a kind of glatt-kosher packaging. There was a time when the problem of hedonism for religious Jews didn’t often arise, because even if you wanted to have the time of your life, there wasn’t very much that you could do. The country clubs were all barred to Jews, there weren’t many kosher restaurants, there were no kosher nightclubs, etc. In the last decade or two, a whole culture has developed geared towards frum Jews, where the message is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and everything has a hekhsher (kosher certification) and a super-hekhsher. The message is that whatever the gentiles have, we have too. They have trips to the Virgin Islands, we have trips to the Virgin Islands. Consequently, there has been a certain debasement of values, in which people have a concern for the minutiae of Halakha (which, of course, one should be concerned about), but with a complete lack of awareness of the extent to which the underlying message is so totally non-halakhic and anti-halakhic.
Don’t misunderstand me—I am not opposed to people enjoying themselves to some extent. I am not arguing for a totally ascetic approach to life; I don’t live that way myself, and what I don’t practice I certainly am not going to preach. In a sense, I don’t practice it because I don’t really think that it is demanded. (There certainly were gedolim [great rabbis] who did advocate it, but others disagreed.) The question is something else entirely. The question is not whether there is room in human life for a person to have a certain measure of pleasure. Rather, the question is what is his basic perspective? How much does he involve himself in this? Does he see himself as basically being born to enjoy or to work?
There is nothing wrong with a person wanting to enjoy, to have a good meal. But if you open up the food critic’s column in a newspaper it is simply muktzeh machmat mi’us (untouchable because of being revolting)! A person who is morally sensitive finds it impossible to read those columns. They begin discussing, for example, the advantages of one airline food over another: here the food was a little bit underdone, there a little bit overdone, the vegetables were a little too fresh, not fresh enough; they begin to go into the finest details. It is astonishing that a person should devote so much time and effort and energy to these questions, and should assume that his readers are going to do so as well, when it is all merely a matter of knowing exactly what the food will be like when you happen to fly. To assign that kind of attention to this kind of nonsense?
To some extent, this feeling has permeated our world: a whole culture of enjoyment has begun to take hold. This is something which is recent, and with which anyone who is a ben-Torah, certainly, should in no way identify or associate. That whole culture advocates that man is born for pleasure, but unfortunately has to work if he wants to enjoy. In contrast, we have to know that “Adam le-amal yulad,” Man is born to do labor” (Iyyov 5:7).