July 21, 2024
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Corona Diary #18: Appreciating the Value of Work and Profession

Jewish history is launched through an epic pilgrimage to the promised land. Having been selected by God, Avraham abandons his homeland, family and culture to enter the great unknown. He isn’t provided a specific destination but instead is instructed to journey to a land that God will ultimately “assign.” His final destination is withheld, in part, to build anticipation for this mysterious but magical land God has chosen. Additionally, traveling without a clear destination makes this decision even more courageous; not only does Avraham sever himself from his past, but he enters the “great wide open.” Even though Avraham isn’t yet aware that he is traveling to Israel, this parcel of land has already been preselected by God; there can be only one land for the first Jew—the land of God.

A midrash provides a dramatically different storyline. God didn’t disclose the itinerary because the final destination wasn’t predetermined. Amazingly, at least according to this midrash, Avraham had an option to select any country along his route, but decided upon Israel because of what he encountered during his journey. As he traveled through ancient Mesopotamia (most likely modern-day Syria and Lebanon), he witnessed people engaged in continuous leisure—eating, drinking and relaxing—while ignoring work and responsibility. Crossing into the borders of Israel, Avraham witnessed a population assiduously at work—plowing, planting and harvesting throughout the seasonal cycles. Witnessing a society of work and labor, Avraham selected this culture while disregarding the cultures of luxury and entertainment he had previously encountered. Evidently, Avraham was attracted to the work ethic he saw in Israel, despite the pagan culture that dominated these ancient states. It was not their religious or spiritual lifestyle that attracted Avraham, but rather their healthy work ethic.

The corona crisis has dramatically disrupted our lives and, in particular, has upended our professional lives and schedules. We have a tendency to settle into our professional lives and to take this aspect of our life for granted. The current pandemic and the disruption of our normal work schedule is a valuable “moment” to reexamine the benefits of work and labor for human and religious experience.

Firstly, work and labor are important because they lend structure and regimen to our day. Without a schedule we tend to waste time—or worse, we tend to misuse our time. The Mishnah in Ketubot (59b) exempts a wealthy woman from domestic activities as she can delegate her tasks to servants. Providing a minority position, Rabbi Eliezer is wary of completely discharging a wealthy woman from domestic responsibilities and obligates even wealthy women in basic domestic duties. Idle hands are the tools of the devil and lazy behavior oftentimes degenerates into carelessness, misconduct and actual transgressions. Even without causing moral or religious misbehavior, a lack of schedule leads to listlessness and aimlessness. Schedule and routine are the great stabilizers of human behavior, and without this important framework life can quickly become disorganized. The Midrash portrays Avraham as being impressed with the general work ethic and dedication of the Israeli residents but also with their adherence to schedule: They performed their various agricultural chores during the suitable seasons. Over the past few months—as our personal and professional schedules have been reformatted—we have all been challenged to maximize time and avoid sluggishness and maintain a healthy daily schedule. The disruption in our professional routine has underscored the value of a steady routine.

Beyond the stabilizing effects of a healthy schedule, work and labor also provide us with a feeling of creativity and productivity. God invested humans with many distinctive qualities such as intellect, cognitive speech, free will and self-consciousness. In addition, He fashioned us—like Himself—with creative capacity. At the core of our identity is the desire to feel valuable, and we feel most valuable when we express the creative potential God imbued in us. Productivity gratifies us, while sustained inertia feels empty and sometimes selfish. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (24b) disqualifies chronic gamblers from serving as legal witnesses even though gambling may not be considered legal theft. As they fritter away their time without contributing to the “greater good,” they are considered subordinate or “inferior” citizens and are unfit to participate in the legal process.

Creativity and productivity are inherent features of human identity, and expression of that creativity yields deep satisfaction. Performing tasks, completing projects and solving challenges elicit various important traits that enhance our character, such as organization, resourcefulness, persistence, commitment, willpower and resilience. Even if a particular profession isn’t creative, most professions are still productive and most advance social welfare. Contributing to something larger than personal interest improves self-esteem and self-worth. Work is important because it refines us and calls upon numerous worthwhile traits.

Human creativity also acknowledges our great partnership with God, who expects us to perfect His world. Rabbi Akiva was once challenged by an adversarial philosopher-warrior named Tunus Rufus regarding the mitzvah of milah. Romans celebrated the beauty of the male human form and therefore viewed circumcision as mutilation. Mocking this mitzvah, Tunus sneered that if God viewed a circumcised body as the ideal form, babies should be born naturally circumcised. Rabbi Akiva responded that God intentionally created an imperfect world because He desires our complementary efforts to perfect His original product. Whenever we act creatively we boost our partnership with God.

Work provides an additional value—beyond the provision of schedule and the opportunity to express human creativity. Work is generally a collective experience, drawing us out of solitary lives and connecting us with a broader community. Most professions are interactive in a direct sense—allowing us to interact with colleagues and clients, students and teachers, patients and patrons. Social settings both broaden our horizons and provide us with much-needed perspective upon our own lives. Even professions that are less interactive and provide little personal interaction still provide a general sense of collective experience. God intended that we sleep at night and perform industry during daylight hours, and by working we are naturally aligned both with God’s design and with the broader human community, which labors during daylight hours. Even when working alone we share a sense of common agenda with a broader community
of human beings who are at work. Man is not meant to live as a hermit, isolated from his fellow creatures, and our work engages us and connects us to humanity at large.

The corona experience has affected many areas of human and religious experience, including our professional lives. The disruption caused by this crisis may help us better appreciate the benefits of our work and of our professions.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

 

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