Work - the Purpose of Life
The nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is best known for his novel Madame Bovary. He is also known for writing numerous aphorisms including that “The Purpose of Life is to Work.”
Such a statement seems very
American to us and is also very Jewish. The Torah begins with a description of
how Hashem created the world and in Chapter II of Berashiyt (Genesis)
tells us that “…..on the seventh day Hashem finished his work which
He had made and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had
made.” God worked. We can do no less.
In Berayshiyt, 3:19
we are also told that “in the sweat of your face you shall eat
bread”. And so it is. Therefore, all work, any work, is held in high
esteem by the Torah and by Jews. We are also told that those who work for us are
to be treated with honor and dignity
and that we are to pay them at once. Vayikro (Leviticus) 19:13 tells us: “You
shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him; the wages of a hired servant shall
not remain with you all night until morning.” In Devoriym (Deuteronomy) 24:15
we read again “In the same day shall you give him his hire, neither shall the
sun go down upon it; for he is poor and sets his heart upon it.”
Here we are commanded to treat those
who are poor with the same dignity as those who are not poor even as we are to
pay the wages due those who need their pay at once. The lesson is that work is
to be respected and the worker held in high esteem.
The Talmud teaches that “the
worker’s rights take priority over all other rights”, meaning that human
rights take precedence over property rights. The great Rabbi Yehoshuah ben
Sirach (180 B.C.E.) taught: “in
the handwork of their craft is their prayer.”
Rabbinic law also provided that
Jewish workers be paid for days on which they were not allowed to work by reason
of religious beliefs. Therefore, Jewish workers had to be paid for Holy Days
such as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, etc.
Jewish tradition has always maintained the importance of work and the worker so
that it is not a surprise that the American Federation of Labor was founded by a
Jew, Samuel Gompers (1850-1924). Numerous other labor unions, particularly in
the clothing industry, were also founded by Jews.
Work is not always physical
labor. In fact, in 21st century America physical labor is done by a
minority of the employed. The vast majority of American Jews, like their
European ancestors, work in business, in the professions and sometimes in the
academy. The responsibilities of business women and men are truly immense. The
need to make a profit and remain in business is vital while the methods become
more complex each day. Now
it is imperative that every entrepreneur know how to use a computer. Education
in business administration can hardly be avoided by those interested in a
Likewise, those in the
professions need a long education to practice
teaching or medicine or law or accounting etc. All that is a lot of
work. What drives us to do all that? Why is it that over 80% of American Jews
gain a higher education? We do so because we are driven to work. Our
parents drive us to work. Their parents, our grandparents, did the same for
Between 1881 and 1900 when a
virtual flood of immigrants came here each day, our ancestors worked in every
conceivable circumstance and so did their children. But their grandchildren,
born here, went to college and worked by day and by night so as to rise from the
immigrant slums into business, medicine, law, education and engineering etc.
They later increased their income and established, through work, those great
Jewish communities which sustain us in America today.
The American Jewish community
has a higher average income now than it ever had. In fact, Jewish income now
exceeds the income of Episcopalians, a denomination which held the lead for two
All that work has led to great
success. Yet, sometimes the pinnacle of success brings with it all kinds of
unforeseen troubles. One of these is called “workaholism” and, like its
namesake, is an addiction.
There are among us those who are
always in a rush and hyperbusy. They are convinced that others cannot do
anything right and that they must do everything themselves. Nothing is ever
perfect. They cannot achieve perfection no matter what they do so they must go
on and on and on. In the name of work they hardly know anyone any more. Their
relationships disappear. They have no time for anyone. They are always working.
They are gripped by endless anxiety because nothing is ever finished nor are
they ever “caught up” with their work. They cannot relax and enjoy anything.
They are thinking of work even when everybody else is playing “spin the
bottle”. Workaholics experience memory losses because they cannot remember
anything not related to their work. Many workaholics are impatient and irritable
because they cannot tolerate anything or anyone not connected to their work.
Workaholics cannot enjoy any achievement for long. They are only as good as
their most recent achievement and are at once rushing to achieve more. Nothing
is good enough. Finally, most of the workaholics have no time to take care of
themselves. They won’t go to the doctor. They can’t find the time. They
never get physical exercise; it
takes too long. They cannot enjoy a movie or a performance; it bores them
because it doesn’t have anything to do with work, work, work, work, work and
What then is the Jewish answer
to this problem? Shabat Menucha. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it
Holy”. Shemoth, (Exodus) 20:8. Whatever we may believe or not believe about
the origin or nature of our religion, is not the Shabbat the greatest social
invention of all time? Here we are told that one day a week we stop the constant
work. Stop “the rat race”. Forget about the money we might have made but did
not because we observe the Shabbat. Relax one day a week. Contemplate the weekly
Torah portion. Read a good book. Meet the family. Go to “shul” and insulate
yourself one day a week from the telephone, the customers, the IRS, the
suppliers, the bosses, the editors, the students, the lectures, the clients, the
patients, the worries and other assorted “gehackte Zores”.
Now, experience teaches us that
everyone is not a workaholic and that there are in fact those among us,
Americans, who will not work and those who do not truly appreciate the value of
work. Among these are some of our Jewish children who have been given
everything from $30,000 Bat/Bar Mitzvah celebrations to fast cars and
swimming pools without understanding how all these things were the product of
generations of work. They never worked and don’t know what work is.
This is not to say that we
should not be wealthy. On the contrary. The more wealth the better. We Jews
earned it. We Jews suffered for it. Read again the great book World of Our
Fathers by Irving Howe. It describes the utter destitution of our European
ancestors who came here with literally nothing between 1881 and 1923. From then
to now, the Jewish population of this country has indeed risen economically,
educationally and socially to great and deserved prominence.
Then how do we teach our
children to go to work? When I first came to this country I worked as a
dishwasher and later a grocery clerk. There I met the son of one of the
wealthiest Jewish lawyers in that community. He worked as I did, putting cans on
shelves and lugging crates of food around the back room. His father told him
that he had to work for his money. His father would not give him any allowance.
Despite the wealth of his family, he had to work.
One of my colleagues told me
that he went to college with the late Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New
York and Vice President of the United States. Lester told me that Rockefeller
had to wait on tables and wash dishes for spending money because his father
would only pay his tuition and room and board. No money to date girls or have a
beer. He had to earn it himself.
So there is a way of teaching
children to work. Everyone needs to learn the lessons of daily work not only
because it fulfills our lives but also because it is dangerous not to know how
to work. Is not endless leisure a nightmare? There is an old German proverb:
“Arbeit macht das Leben süss” or Work makes life sweet.
Recently we attended a Bat
mitzvah in another city. The child, after performing a minimum of Hebrew
reading, was treated to a party involving 200 guests who dined on a boat rented
for that purpose. Waiters served the 200 guests, a professional entertainer
played “bee bop” music on the second deck, huge gifts descended on the
little girl and in the noise and “Tohoo vo’vohoo” of those events, the Bat
Mitzvah disappeared as a burdensome by-product of an enormous party. Indeed the
father could well afford the celebration. But can a child treated to so much at
so young an age afford not to know how her father literally labored like a
modern-day slave to bring on all that wealth? Is a smaller Bar/Bat Mitzvah a
better investment? Can we be sure our children know the value of work even if
nothing is asked of them?
Of course we Jews are no
slackers. 80% of us go to college. We are almost always the leading ethnic group
on the Dean’s list. Not because we are more intelligent than everyone else.
Not because we are “superior” to anyone else. No. We look so good
academically because we work harder than anyone else. Einstein is dead. There
are few superior minds in this world. Almost all of us are just ordinary folks.
However, some of us are willing to work when others quit. The late Richard
Nixon, may he rest in peace, used to say: “A winner never quits and a quitter
never wins.” Nixon wasn’t Jewish. He was American like we are. Nothing fits
the Jewish ethic as well as the American spirit. That is why we have succeeded
in doing so much for our country as this country has done so much for us.
Physical work is not the only work on this earth. There is intellectual work, requiring great concentration and immersion. There is artistic work and there is the unjustly, much despised “housework”. Whatever it is, work is always honorable and the worker at any task a real Mensch. Therefore we wish and pray that we may keep working and achieving in the new Jewish Year and for all the years to come, Bimhayrah v’yomannoo.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.