Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


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 business career.

   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 them.

   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 hundred years.

   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 more work.

  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.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.

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