Sunday, February 16, 2014

Working it out / Parshat Vayakhel

I once overheard my husband, speaking about me to a friend, jokingly say, “Yeah, I think her idea of a vacation is that we all clear out for a week or two so she can get even more work done.” Was he talking about me? I wrinkled my nose at him and he replied, “It’s hardly a secret.” I’m not a Type A, but I do like to get things done and not have them hanging over my head. But just clearing off my desk isn’t sufficient. And sometimes that’s the good side of work.

I spoke with an acquaintance at the gym this morning as we plodded through our elliptical workouts. He works in the ever-changing and challenging field of cyber security. He’s been putting in 60 to 80 hour weeks because his employer cut the workforce by 17% and expects the remaining employees to not only pick up the slack, but cover the ever-increasing workload. He said, “It’s hard to have a life.” I have spoken with others who are overworked, underpaid, and disrespected at work, as well as those who see their jobs as an assemblage of boring and meaningless tasks whose only purpose is to engender a paycheck.

Torah’s lengthy and elaborate description of the work of building the Tabernacle begins with a mention of work:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that Adonai commanded you to do. For six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of compete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.
(Exodus 35:1-3)

The emphasis on rest, and the dark threat of death for violators of the commanded rest make it difficult to see that Torah commands not only shabbat but also work. We are supposed to work. That is the normal way of the world. Well, you knew that, right? We all have to work, at least until we can retire and live a life that is kulo shabbat, our weeks like a string of Sabbath beads strung on gossamer of rest and relaxation.

And we might think that work means drudgery. After all, when God banishes the man and his wife from the Garden of Eden, God says:

…Cursed be the ground because of you;
B y toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.
(Genesis 3:17-19)

Isn’t that a cheery thought? Labor historian, Prof. Melvyn Dubofsky, published a review of James B. Gilbert’s Work without Salvation: America’s Intellectuals and Industrial Alienation, 1880-1910 under the title, “Adam’s Curse: Or the Drudgery of Work.” “Work without salvation” and “the drudgery of work” are phrases that speak for all too many people. No wonder Monday elicits groans, Wednesday is “hump day” and Friday, well TGIF says it all. Most advice for people who are miserable at work concerns when to quit. Not everyone feels this way about their job or other work they do, but most people feel this way about some of the work they do.

A few chapters earlier, when the Decalogue was recounted, we read:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God Adonai; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea—and all that is in them—and then rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

Again, the imperative of work is barely visible behind the screen of the commandment concerning shabbat. The formulation for shabbat here is magnificent: rest is all-encompassing, universal. It’s for everyone, including servants and even animals—all of God’s creation, all in imitation of God’s rest on the seventh day. But if that is so, then our labor for the other six days of the week is also in imitation of God’s cosmic creation. As God created, so do we; as God rested, so do we. This suggests a different way to view our work: rather than drudgery, our labors contribute to the on-going creation of the world, the furtherance of civilization.

Can we see our work as having a creative, holy component? Can we see it as part of a larger effort to support society, build humanity, further values we applaud and even cherish? Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl in Me’or Eynayim quotes the opening verse of parshat Vayakhel, and then explains:

These are the things that Adonai commanded you to do: For six days work shall be done… (Exodus 35:1). Why is “shall be done” written in this passive form? This seems to indicate that the work is done on its own…

I’m sure I’m not alone in running this experiment. You can leave laundry in the hamper and dishes in the sink and they don’t clean themselves. You can leave marvelous books piled on the desk, but they don’t magically sink into your mind or appear in brilliant written pieces on your laptop. You can leave paperwork galore all over the place and, somehow, it does not process itself. Alas.

The Chernobler rebbe answer his own question:

Know Him in all your ways (Proverbs 3:6) means that everything you do or think should be in accord with the Torah that is within it, and he should believe this with complete faith. For all things happen in accordance with Torah. This is what [the Sages] meant [B. Makkot 24a] in which the prophet Habakkuk [characterized the essence of the entire Torah as:] The righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4). The essence is faith and [with faith] one will surely fulfill [the admonition of Proverbs:] Know Him in all your ways— thinking that it is not you that is conducting this negotiation, or whatever thing it is, but rather the Torah within it… This is what Moses is teaching the people. Even though it is necessary to engage in labor, know that it, too, is Torah.

At first glance, we might think that Rabbi Menachem Nachum is telling us that Torah pulls the invisible strings that run the world and we are mere marionettes fulfilling Torah’s mandates. But I don’t think that is what he means. It seems to me that he is saying that when we are focused on Knowing [God] in all your ways, that means conducting our lives as much as possible in accordance with what we understand to be God’s values and priorities and Torah’s ways. Through this focus, our thoughts and deeds are imbued with Torah and we can elevate our work to a divine level of meaning, seeing it integrally connected with divine meaning and purpose. Conducting our lives in this way, thinking and acting with holiness in mind, will assure that our work is not mundane at all, but rather holy work—six days a week.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum then connects the six days of work with the seventh day of rest:

These are the things… Six days shall work be done…
These are the things means that the work that gets done on the six days is also by the hand of Torah. Then, the seventh day will be holy [means that] when you act in this way all through the six days, the seventh will surely be holy, for you will have drawn holiness into the entire week. [Quoting B. Avodah Zarah 3a:] “The one who makes an effort on the eve of shabbat will eat on shabbat.”

The Chernobler rebbe reaffirms that when we go about our work in this way, we drawn down holiness not only for shabbat, but into the entire week. The one who makes an effort on the eve of shabbat (i.e., the six working days) will eat on shabbat means that those who approach their endeavors on the six working days as acts of holiness will enjoy the full holiness of shabbat all week long.

Clearly, this approach does not solve the problems of being overworked, underpaid, or disrespected. But it does address the issue of meaning: Can we see our work as meaningful? Another looming question is can we really do this? Here’s a suggestion:
Think of three things you did today at work and how they fit into a larger picture of purpose, how your efforts contribute to the success of some endeavor, and how that endeavor can benefit others. Try to do that every day after work for a week. Then next week start your day by thinking about three things you will do that day and how they contribute to the on-going creation of the world and the furtherance of society.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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