TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
THE WORK ETHIC
VAYEITZEI, Genesis 28:10-32:3
As an old man, Jacob said to Pharaoh: "Little and evil were the days of the years of my life" (Genesis 47:9) . Our present portion depicts the struggles of Jacob in his earlier years, as he flees from the wrath of his brother Esau to take refuge with his duplicitous uncle Laban, against whose wiles he struggles for years in order to marry, build his family and establish himself as a man of substance in the world.
After twenty years with Laban, Jacob "increased exceedingly, and had large flocks and maid-servants and men-servants and camels and asses" (Genesis 30:43). All Jacob's wealth and even his very wives were gained through hard work and effort, as he himself testified to Laban when the latter tried to swindle him out of his just rewards:
"It is now twenty years that I have been with you. Your sheep and your goats did not cast their young, and I did not eat the rams of your flock. I did not bring you an animal that was preyed upon; I bore the loss. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. By day the drought consumed me and the ice by night, and sleep fled from my eyes. This is now twenty years that I have been in your house. I worked for you for fourteen years for your daughters and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times" (Genesis 31:38-41) .
Although Laban repeatedly deceived Jacob, the latter refused to take any kind of vengeance or permit himself to deal with him dishonestly. This was because Jacob wanted nothing from this world that he had not earned through honest work and effort. He did not want to eat "the bread of shame" that a person receives as a free, unearned and undeserved gift from someone else.
Working for one's just deserts is a fundamental pillar of the Torah outlook. God's purpose in creation was to give His creatures a share of His own perfect goodness, but "God's wisdom decreed that for such good to be perfect, the one enjoying it must be its master. He must be one who has earned it for himself, and not one given it accidentally or by chance. God therefore decreed and arranged that creation contain elements of both perfection and deficiency, as well as a creature [man] with equal access to both. This creature would then be given the means to both acquire perfection and avoid deficiency..The more elements of perfection this creature incorporates into itself, the stronger will be his association and bond to God, deriving both pleasure and perfection from His goodness, while he is himself the master of this good and perfection, having acquired them by choosing them" (Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, "The Way of God", translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Feldheim Publishers, pp. 39-41) .
One of the ways God has given mankind to purify and refine both ourselves and the world is through working to make a living. God created the world incomplete - with endless potential yet a multitude of deficiencies - so that the creatures themselves would have to act and do , as written at the conclusion of the account of creation: "which He created to do " (Genesis 2:3:). Thus wheat cannot be plucked from the stalk and eaten immediately but must be processed, hulled, ground, combined with other ingredients and baked or cooked to provide tasty food, etc.
If people stopped working, the world would go to ruin. But ".not for devastation did He create it; He fashioned it for a habitation" (Isaiah 45:18). God desires a civilized, developed world in which we constantly improve the way we utilize its amazing resources to provide the best possible life for all its inhabitants, materially and spiritually. God desires that we should earn our living with dignity through work and effort, and not depend upon others except in cases of genuine need.
One of the Seven Noahide commandments that apply to all mankind is not to take what one wants or needs from others without their consent - through robbery or theft.
Robbery is when one takes or snatches something from another blatantly and shamelessly (cf. II Samuel 23:21) . Theft and stealing are carried out in such a way that the person who suffers the loss is not aware of it at the time.
Robbery and theft occur not only in the lawless world of criminal thieves and robbers, but in all kinds of subtler forms "in broad daylight", not only on the street or in the marketplace but also when powerful monopolies, consortiums, vested interests and governments corner large sections of the populace into having to accept low wages while paying extortionate prices and taxes, helping further line the pockets of the rich. Many highly-placed officials receive bribes and other benefits to give away money and resources that do not belong to them, magnifying their own expense claims etc., literally stealing from the public chest.
In our present Torah portion, Jacob - alone and without support - deals with one of the most ingenious thieves and exploiters of all times, the wily Laban, yet does not permit himself to take vengeance and steal anything back. This comes to teach that even when faced with surrounding malpractice and corruption, the God-fearing citizen of the world does not allow him or herself to fall to the same low level, knowing that we are commanded not to steal.
While theft is often a matter of stealing actual goods or money, there are many other ways in which people wittingly or unthinkingly steal from others. To avoid willful or unintentional theft:
No-one should have to work all the time. Rest, relaxation, recreation and appropriate entertainment are perfectly right and legitimate as they give us the strength to accomplish our work and our mission in this world. Inactivity leads to boredom, which can cause a host of evils. The Torah teaches us the value of work - for each one in his or her pathway and vocation. In the words of Shimon the Righteous (High Priest in Jerusalem in the time of Alexander the Great): "The world stands upon three things: on the Torah, on work and on acts of kindness" (Avot 1:2) . He was referring to the holy work of the Temple priests, to our daily work and service of prayer, and to actual mundane, everyday work.
"One that is slack in his work is brother to the destroyer" (Proverbs 18:9) .
"Go to the ant, you lazy one; consider her ways, and be wise. She has no chief, overseer or ruler, but she provides her bread in the summer and gathers her food in the harvest. How long will you sleep, O lazy one? When will you get up out of your sleep? 'Just a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of hands to sleep' - so shall your poverty come as a runner and your need and lack as an armed man." (Proverbs 6:6-11) .
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