Labor Day


Said Rabbi Elazar: Every man was created in order to toil, as it is written, “For man is born to toil”(Job 5:7). I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of the mouth or for the toil of work; when the verse says, “[The toiling soul…] his mouth compels him,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of the mouth. I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of Torah or for the toil of speech; when the verse says, “This book of Torah should not depart from your mouth,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of Torah – Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b

Labor Day in America – which informally marks the end of summer and the beginning of the work and school year – always falls out in the days preceding Rosh Hashana.

Quite fitting since Rosh Hashana is the collective birthday of the human race, when we begin a new cycle of life and assess anew our mission – the purpose of all our labor in this world.

In a previous essay, we explored the roots of work, its vices and virtues, and the need to permeate our material labor with a higher spiritual calling.

Let us now review the actual nature of our labor and how we can ensure that our work be connected to its higher purpose.

The Talmud tells us that there the human being needs to be involved in three types of labor: the “toil of work,” the “toil of speech,” and the “toil of Torah.”

On a most basic level the human being, created in the Divine image, has the power and the need to create. We are not merely passive recipients accepting the status quo around us, but through our hard work we have the ability to change the world in which we live. Only when he toils does man have full satisfaction and pleasure. As our sages tell us, “a person desires one measure from his own labor more than nine measures [given to him as gift] from another.” Effortless gain is called “bread of shame.”

The “toil of work” allows us to become partners with G-d in existence. When we plow and seed the earth to coax nourishment from it, when we forge wood, stone and other materials into a home, when we distill energy from matter, we are working. This is toilsome work, for we are combating the inert state of these “raw” materials. It is G-dly work, for we are furthering His enterprise of forming an ordered and civilized world out of an initial state of “chaos and formlessness.” We are fulfilling the divine will expressed in the verse: “He did not create [the world] for chaos; He created it that it be settled.”

A higher level of partnership is achieved when we introduce our “speech”—our capacity for creativity—into shaping the world around us. When we redefine reality by communicating our experience of it to others, when we speak ideas into being, when we dialogue and communicate with each other, we add a new dimension into existence, just as G-d spoke the world into existence. On this level, we are partners with Him not only in that we are both contributors, but also in that we are both creators.

The “toil of speech” does not just develop existing material resources, but it adds the synergetic creativity that comes through communication.

Finally comes the “toil of Torah,” the effort to impose a higher, supra-natural reality upon the world by implementing the divine will, as expressed in the Torah, in our daily lives.

In other words human creativity has three dimensions: The “toil of work” – what we contribute through our labor in developing existing resources. The “toil of speech” – a new dimension introduced through our creativity. The “toil of Torah” – which creates transcendent energy, reaching beyond human creativity.

For our labor and toil to be healthy it has to include all three forms of work: development, creativity and transcendence. Only then can our labor be aligned with its higher purpose and lift us to great heights.

Divorced of these three dimensions – as in labor that is driven primarily for profit or other motives – labor will crush us with its sheer weight. Materialism on its own is a “land that consumes its inhabitants.” Witness all the corruption resulting from human greed and narcissism.

Note as well that the order of the three labors is also precise. The latter two forms of toil (speech and Torah) are not sufficient. One must begin with physical work, the “toil of work.” Indeed, most of our time is spent immersed in material labor. Our actions have the power to transform the universe. Yet, for the work to be complete and connected with our higher calling, we need to complement the “toil of work” with the “toil of speech,” our creativity and communicative skills, and above that – the “toil of Torah,” introducing spiritual transcendence into our material activities.

So, as a Labor Day exercise as well as an Elul exercise, ask yourself: Does my life include these three types of labor? Is my material work integrated with the other two forms of toil, or am I completely overwhelmed by my job and career?

Am I working only to survive or only for profit? Does my work have any higher purpose?

In two weeks time we will have a rendezvous with destiny – we renew our contract with life and embrace anew our mission statement.

Now is the time to review and realign the balance of your activities. If you are too immersed in your material labor, now is the time to introduce the other two dimensions. Find ways to use your work to help make the world a better place. Volunteer your time and skills to virtuous causes. Infuse your work with a refined sense of ethics. Be a mentsch.

What better way to prepare for the cosmic birthday coming in a few weeks?


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