Le-ovdah—The Work Ethic

The sense of duty I mentioned above with regard to “le-shomrah” applies likewise to the first component of Adam’s mandate—“ le-ovdah.” It is not enough to guard; one needs also to develop and to create. Let us be mindful that this applied even in what seemingly had been a perfect world! “And God saw all that He had made and found it very good” (Bereishit 1:31). If all is wonderful and perfect, what need is there for “le-ovdah?” There are two possible answers. Although the difference between them is of great significance in many areas, I would prefer not to focus on the clash between them, but rather to see them both as being correct.

The first answer is that, indeed, the world was created perfect— but part of that perfection, and one of the components within that order, is human activity. Part of “And He found it very good” is man, not existing simply as a biological being enjoying the world, but rather as a functional being who con- tributes, creates and works. The need for man to work is not part of the curse subsequent to the sin; man was originally placed in the Garden in order to cultivate it. The curse was that man would have to battle with an unwilling earth: “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. . . . By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Bereishit 3:18-19). But the fact that one needs to work at all is part of the primeval, primordial order, irrespective of any element of sin. This had been intended from the beginning. Simply put, this is indeed a perfect order, provided that man does his part. If man does not, then one of the pieces of the picture has fallen out, and the world is no longer perfect.

According to this approach, both “le-ovdah” and “le-shomrah” are designed to maintain the world at its present level, and this entails two components: passively guarding against damage and actively working in order to replenish. We need to work so that the natural processes repeat themselves; if you do not contribute your share, the seasons come and go, but nature does not replenish itself.

The second approach assumes that “le-ovdah” is a mandate to go beyond the original state of creation. “Le-ovdah” is not meant simply to maintain the original standard; rather, we have been given the right and the duty to try to transcend it. While the former approach asserts that man was asked to maintain the world as God had created it, this answer claims that man was empowered and enjoined to create something better, as it were.

Although this approach is audacious, we find it advanced by Chazal in several places. Perhaps the most celebrated is the midrash (Tanchuma, Parashat Tazria) which speaks of the encounter between the Roman governor Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God wanted man to be circumcised, then why did He not create him that way?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Bring me some wheat.” Then he said, “Bring me a loaf of bread.” He asked, “Which do you prefer to eat, the bread or the wheat?” “Naturally, the bread,” Turnus Rufus replied. Rabbi Akiva retorted, “Do you not see now that the works of flesh and blood are more pleasant than those of God?” There is a certain audacity here, but these are the words of Rabbi Akiva! What you have here is an assertion of human ability and grandeur, and of human responsibility to engage in this kind of improvement.

The extent to which this particular view is accepted depends on whether one adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, a humanistic perspective. Humanists talk a great deal about man placing his imprint upon the world, improving it, building it, and so on. When I say humanists, I am not talking only about secular humanists; I mean religious humanists within our world as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, for example, talk a great deal about the need for man to create.

Historically, this debate has found expression in some very strange contexts. In late seventeenth-century England, there was a vigorous debate about the hills and valleys. Some assumed that in the Newtonian world of mathematical precision, a perfect world presumably would be perfectly shaped. How, then, to explain the indentations of hills and valleys which seem to mar what should be a perfectly round globe? People with a more Romantic perspective said that it’s nicer this way, with some variety; who would want the whole world to be as flat as the New Jersey Turnpike? Others gave a more theological interpretation: really, a perfect world would be a perfect globe without any ups and downs, but God made the mountains and the valleys so that man should have the challenge of flattening everything. To us, this debate seems curious, but the basic notion is clear.

The debate about the role of art similarly reflects these two basic positions about man’s relation to the world. Plato claimed that artists misrepresent reality. He believed that the ultimate reality is the world of ideas, of which our world is just a kind of reflection or image. Now, says Plato, what does the poet or the artist do? He has the image of the image, and is now two steps removed from reality, instead of being one step away. So he banished all of them from his ideal republic. One response was given to this by Plotinus. The best known statement of this response in English is Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy,” an essay written in the late sixteenth century. Sidney says that Plato’s perception is wrong: the poet does not imitate nature, he goes beyond nature. The natural world, he says, is brass, but the poet’s world is gold.

For our purposes, however, both of these approaches to the value of labor can be regarded as correct. What is important is the sense of human responsibility and the recognition of the importance of building the world and improving society. To us, work is indeed a central value. Chazal have numerous statements to this effect. For example, just as there is an obligation to rest on Shabbat, there is also an obligation that “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” (Shemot 20:9); the two are somewhat interrelated (see Avot De-Rabbi Natan, version B, chap. 21, and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Shemot 20:9).

In a famous statement, the Rambam spoke of this in a halakhic context. The gemara (Sanhedrin 25b) says that a dice-player (i.e. a gambler) is disqualified from giving testimony in court. Two reasons are offered for this. One opinion is that he is a sort of thief, because of the halakhic principle that “asmakhta lo kanya.” Whoever gambles does so because he assumes he is going to win, and if he knew that he would lose he wouldn’t gamble.

Thus, he gambles based upon an asmakhta, relying on an implicit condition. Therefore, the loser does not really transfer ownership of the money, and the winner does not legally acquire it. The second opinion disqualifies a gambler because “eino osek be-yishuvo shel olam,” he is not involved in developing the world constructively. The gemara then brings a practical distinction between these two opinions. According to the first reason (asmakhta), even a person who gambles only occasionally is ineligible to give testimony. However, according to the second approach, only a professional gambler is disqualified—someone who has no other profession, but rather spends his entire day at the racetrack, or doing something similarly non-constructive.

The Rambam rules according to the latter opinion, but he takes the occasion to generalize:

One who plays dice with a gentile does not transgress the prohibition of stealing, but he does transgress the prohibition of occupying oneself with worthless things, for it is not suitable for a person to occupy himself all the days of his life with anything other than matters of wisdom and the developing of the world. (Hilkhot Gezeila 6:11)

I won’t deal now with the reason the Rambam thinks that the problem of asmakhta doesn’t apply to this case. What is relevant to us is his definition of the two things a person should be engaged in: divrei chokhma (matters of wisdom) and yishuvo shel olam (the developing of the world).

This notion of the significance of work per se, of engaging in yishuvo shel olam, of “le-ovdah,” has several bases. First, in a purely psychological sense, in terms of mental health, one’s self-fulfillment comes through work. For instance, the mishna (Ketubot 5:5, 59b) says that if a woman marries, she is expected to per- form certain tasks in the house, but if she brings servants with her, she does not have to do them. The gemara (ibid.) adds that the more servants she brings, the less she has to do, because they will take care of the needs of the household. However, beyond a certain point, this does not apply; her husband can demand that she do something—anything—because, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Idleness leads to lewdness;” it leads to a loose, lascivious life. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel offers a different reason: “A husband who takes an oath that his wife should do no work, should divorce her and pay her ketuba, since idleness leads to shi’amum.” Shi’amum can be understood either as insanity or as boredom, ennui, a sense of spiritual degradation. Even if she’s as wealthy as Midas, she has to do some kind of work, lest idleness lead to psychological and spiritual problems.

There is also, of course, a social basis to our emphasis on work. The fact is that work needs to be done. A society in which people work is, in terms of its basic structure and values, very different from one in which they do not. The midrash at the beginning of Lekh Lekha asks: When God told Avraham, “Go forth from your native land . . . to the land which I will show you” (Bereishit 12:1), how did Avraham know when he had arrived at the right place? From a mystical point of view, one might assume that he was attracted by the kedusha (sanctity) inherent within the land. But the midrash gives a very non-mystical explanation:

Rabbi Levi said: When Avram walked through Aram Naharayim and Aram Nachor, he saw the people there eating, drinking and acting loosely. Avram said to himself, “I hope that I do not have a portion in this land.” When he arrived at the cliffs of Tyre (what is now called Rosh Ha-nikra, at the northern border of Israel), he saw people busying themselves with weeding during the season for weeding, hoeing during the time for hoeing, etc. He said to himself, “I hope that I will have a portion in this land.” (Bereishit Rabba 39:8)

When Avraham saw people lounging around, eating and drinking and having a good time, he knew that he had not yet arrived. But when he saw people performing agricultural tasks that needed to be done, he sensed that he had come to the promised land. That is what attracted him. This was not a land whose people were devoted to the quest for pleasure but rather to commitment, work and responsibility. These are the things that define a culture.

There is a third basis as well to the emphasis on work, and this is more specifically religious in nature. A person who works is a partner to God in ma’aseh bereishit (creation). In this respect, he is imitating God. Usually we speak of imitating God by being merciful, or by performing acts of chesed (kindness), but the midrash also tells us:

Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Simon said: [The verse states,] “After the Lord your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) . . . [What does this mandate of imitatio Dei entail?] At the beginning of the world’s creation, the Holy One occupied Himself first with planting, as it says, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Bereishit 2:8); so too, when you enter the Land [of Israel], occupy yourselves first with planting—and thus it says (Vayikra 19:23), “When you enter the land and plant all fruitbearing trees. . .” (Vayikra Rabba 25:3)

Of course, the trees are symbolic of man’s contribution to this world, to nature—something which is planted by human agency, rather than something which appears spontaneously. There are numerous other midrashim in this general vein.


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.

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.

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).

I’ve addressed myself here to one major question, namely, the sense of a person’s existence in the service of God, and the responsibilities and obligations which attend upon that existence: obligations vis-a-vis God, the world and oneself. The importance of work, and of constructive contribution through involvement in the world and society, is very, very clear, and is a cardinal element in our basic worldview. There is, though, another aspect to this question, which at this point I will simply mention. The Rambam said above that a person should engage in only two things divrei chokhma and yishuvo shel olam. What he does not describe there is the breakdown between these two.

Surely, this is a very major question for us, and it is a significant and legitimate question at a universal level as well. To what extent should one engage in work—and by work I mean not simply making money, but rather constructive activity—and to what extent should he pursue wisdom? A gentile, too, has a certain dimension of talmud Torah: “Rabbi Meir says: Even a gentile who occupies himself with the Torah is like a High Priest” (Sanhedrin 59a). The gemara later understands this in terms of more universal wisdom, the Seven Noachide Laws. Even secular advocates of the work ethic have had to deal with the relation between work and other cultural, aesthetic or moral values. How much more so for us, for whom Torah study is so central—“You shall meditate upon it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8). Thus, while our position is clear regarding work versus hedonism, the question of work versus Torah study is entirely different, and will be treated independently in the next lecture.





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