Watching the reconstituted “Occupy Movement” protests in commemoration of May Day on the streets of New York, one could not help but be reminded how important a person's work is in shaping identity and providing them with a sense of dignity and self-worth. Those of us who are privileged to have full-time employment spend the majority of our week busy with our work, and so it may be difficult to picture for a moment what it would be like to be out of work.
But if you can, try. In our society, hardly an introduction gets made between two strangers without “what they do for a living” being among one of the first questions asked. There are people whose work week consists of going to dozens of interviews, with no success. Losing one’s job not only affects a person financially, but can break spirit. In our world’s difficult economic climate, I have today become accustomed to asking where a person “is in life,” not taking for granted for a moment when meeting someone that he or she may be among the nine percent (the number is likely much higher) of people in the State of New Jersey who are unemployed.
Jewish tradition speaks of the degree to which a person's work helps shape their identity. Taking a look at the lives of our Talmudic sages, we can see how equally as important as the title “rabbi” was the title of their job. Rabbi Yose, for example, is referred to in the Talmud as Rabbi Yose Hasandler, Rabbi Yose the Shoemaker. And for all of the Torah studying that our sages did, the Talmud reminds us that our sages were people who otherwise held full-time jobs: Rabbi Chanina was a cobbler, Rav Huna raised cattle, and even Shimon Hapakuli, the noted sage who the Talmud teaches us composed the central Jewish prayer the Amidah, worked with wool and fabrics.
Historically, the value that Jews placed on the dignity that comes from earning an honest living has always guided us toward seeking ways to improve the availability and quality of labor around the world. In Europe and the United States Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth century would play a critical role in building organized labor movements. And in Israel, an entire branch of Zionist philosophy would be dedicated to a understanding of the transformative power of labor, as Labor Zionist A.D. Gordon would write: "We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight of the Homeland.”
Today we live at a moment where too many people are out of work. Yet Judaism teaches us that to be compassionate we must recognize that a loss of a job is never solely about financial security, but about the loss of pride and dignity that help shape a person’s existence. The way that we behave toward our fellow Jews when they have fallen upon hard times says a lot more about us than it does about them, and as Jews we share in this sacred responsibility with our divine creator to somech noflim, to help lift up those who have fallen on hard times.
Maimonides, who himself was a doctor and a rabbi, understood in his Mishne Torah that giving tzedakah, charity, was hardly about transferring money, but was really about the different degrees to which we as Jews may help our fellow to restore his or her self-confidence and dignity. It is for this reason that we today have his famous image of the Tzedakah ladder, which entails the eight different levels of giving tzedakah. Certainly, Maimonides recognized that all types of giving was important. Yet, he also understood that the highest level of giving from a psychological standpoint would be the kind that would help to restore dignity to the individual through entering a business partnership with an unemployed person or by giving an unemployed person a job.
Today, members of the Jewish community must be more willing to follow Maimonides’ example; we must help our fellow Jews recapture the dignity that comes from the sanctity of work. We must raise up those who have fallen by investing in their potential, and we must do more to help the myriads of Jews seeking restoration of work, but restoration for themselves as well.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J., and is a board member of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. He dedicates this column to his mother Cheryl, who raised him to remember how to treat each human being with dignity.
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