Avodah: Vocation, Calling, Service

More than just means to make money, our jobs can be one vehicle for setting the world right.

The word for work in Hebrew, avodah, is the same used for prayer. Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings, as set forth in this story about the Hasidic master Rabbi David of Lelov [Poland, 1746-1813]:

“Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki [Poland, 1779-1848] was once traveling with the holy rabbi, David of Lelov, and they came to the town of Elkish at night, at 1:00 am. Rabbi David did not want to wake anyone to ask for a place to sleep, for (as is famous) his love for all Jews was so great [he did not want to wake anyone for his own benefit].

“‘So,’ the Vorker said, ‘we went to Reb Berish’s bakery [for he would be awake and at work]. When we arrived there we found him at work, by the oven, and Reb Berish was embarrassed at being found this way [in the midst of such lowly manual labor].

“But the holy Lelover said to him: ‘Oh, if only God would let me earn my living by the work of my hands! For the truth is that every one of Israel in their innermost hearts, which even they themselves don’t know, wants to do good to their fellow human being. So everyone who works–as a shoemaker or tailor or baker, or whatever, who serves others’ needs for money–on the inside they don’t do this work in order to make money, but in order to do good to others–even though they do receive money for their troubles; but this is secondary and unimportant, because it is obvious that they have to accept money in order to live.

:But the inner meaning of their work is that they want to do good and show kindness to their fellow human beings'” (G’dulat Mordechai Ugdulat Ha-tzaddikim edited by Mordechai Yitzhak Halevi Stashevski, Warsaw 1933/34, II, 14).

Work as Tikkun Olam

Though work is our vocation, it has the potential to accomplish tikkun olam, “repair of the world.” Every job, every work interaction has value. There are those who believe that each of us is chosen for a particular task to perform in the world.

“Rav Zutra said: What is the meaning of this verse: ‘God made everything beautiful in its time’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11)? This teaches that the Holy One made everyone’s craft appear beautiful in their eyes” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a).

This is reflected in a story told by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin:

“The boss of the moving crew was a delightful, crusty gentleman, a dead ringer for Willie Nelson. I had never met anyone so enthusiastic about his or her work, and I asked him the source of that enthusiasm.

“‘Well, you see, I’m a religious man,’ he answered, ‘and my work is part of my religious mission.’

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

“‘Well, its like this. Moving is hard for most people. It’s a very vulnerable time for them. People are nervous about going to a new community, and about having strangers pack their most precious possessions. So, I think God wants me to treat my customers with love and to make them feel that I care about their things and their life. God wants me to help make their changes go smoothly. If I can be happy about it, maybe they can be, too'” (Jeffrey Salkin, Being God’s Partner).

Work & Competing Values

Seeing the value in work only heightens the question of how to balance the demands and challenges of work with the rest of our lives–our family, friends, etc. For the rabbis [of classical Talmudic Judaism] the question was different: how to balance Torah/Judaism and work. If, after all, the highest Jewish value is Torah study, which is a lifelong occupation, then shouldn’t we minimize our time at work? For the rabbis, the question was how much work to fit into a life a Torah, while for us the question is how much life to fit into a world of work? Yet despite their love of Torah, work occupied a central place in the rabbis’ lives.

Rabbi Zakok taught, “Do not make the Torah a spade wherewith to ‘dig’ [i.e., make a living]” (Mishnah Avot 4:7). Each of the Talmudic rabbis had real jobs, none of them made their livings as rabbis. They understood that the success of the Torah depended upon putting its ideals to work in “real” life. The tradition is only worthwhile if it works during the week, not just on Shabbat.

“Rava [a Babylonian Talmudic sage] said: When they escort people to their Heavenly tribunal after their death, the tribunal asks: ‘Did you conduct your business transactions faithfully?’ [Only then are you asked:] ‘Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?'” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a),

Today we often think of religion as that which takes place in the synagogue or within the realm of ritual. Religion in America can be consigned to the leisure-time activities, allocated to the Sabbath. Instead we are taught the following:

“Joshua said: If people recite two halakhot [Jewish laws] in the morning and two halakhot in the evening, and the rest of the day is occupied with their work, it is imputed to them as though they [meditated upon it day and night, and thus] fulfilled the entire Torah, all of it.”

“‘Thou shall meditate therein day and night’ (Joshua 1:8) [a precept that is impossible to fulfill]. Hence Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said: Only to people who ate manna [whom God provided sustenance] was the Torah given to study intensely, since such people had no need to engage in craft or business. Otherwise, could a person sit and study Torah, not knowing where their food and drink would come from or where they would get their clothes or coverings?” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallah, Va-yassa’ 3).

These texts reflect the tradition’s essential attitude toward work. Work is not just necessary to earn a living, it is a way, perhaps the way, to engage in Torah. Thus the very verse that is often understood to mean that we should engage in Torah study continuously–day and night–is reinterpreted to refer not to Torah study but to living a life of Torah. Why? Because it is impossible in the “real” world to spend all of one’s time in Torah study.

The Torah is meant to be lived, not studied. We are to meditate on it day and night, night and day, not by withdrawing from the world into the beit midrash, “the house of study,” but rather by engaging fully in the world while meditating on the Torah and its teaching regarding honesty and living with awareness.

Reprinted with permission from 
A Book of Life
 (Schocken Books).

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