I’m not sure I’m supposed to tell you this, but I turned this blog in late. I didn’t mean for it to be late, but it’s a busy time of year for a rabbi. Work piles up as preparations perpetuate for the High Holy Days and the start of the school year, and on top of that I need to keep up with my regular day-to-day responsibilities.
Every profession has its busy season. Teachers are pretty busy right now too, just as Certified Public Accountants get overwhelmed in the weeks leading up to the tax filing deadline of April 15, and retailers get crazy in December in the rush of commerce before that other holiday season. It’s good to be busy, but sometimes that busyness can get in the way of finding meaning in our work.
Enter Labor Day, which we Americans mark Monday. Here in the United States, Labor Day signals the end of summer. We mark this transition with the beginning of the college and professional football seasons, last trips to the beach, wearing white clothes for the last time before they are put away for the winter, and of course all sorts of holiday weekend sales. What can get lost in all of these festivities is the actual meaning of the day, which helps us think about the purpose of all the time we spend working.
Labor Day was originally a celebration of the contributions workers make to society. But, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote in 1951 in his book “The Faith of America,” this celebration can extend far beyond appreciation, by inspiring us into action:
“The dignity of labor arises from the fact that through it man helps to create his own world and to determine the destiny of the human race. But that dignity is present only when labor is free and is spent voluntarily in meeting the needs of the laborer, his family, and his community… Hence Labor Day should stimulate thought on how to render labor as free and creative as we can make it.”
Jewish tradition contains many laws that seek to give dignity to labor. One example can be found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where we learn that it is prohibited to withhold the wages of a day laborer. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 112a) sharpens this law by declaring that for “all who withhold an employee’s wages, it is as if he has taken his life from him.”
We can understand this law both physically and spiritually. Physically, a worker needs to get paid on time so he can pay for his basic needs, such as food and shelter. Spiritually, compensation for work is also a form of validation: Paying a worker on time says we value his or her work, we appreciated it and it has made a difference. Doing work and then having that work validated helps give it dignity and meaning.
We see this dual meaning in work in another source as well. Rabban Gamliel states in Pirke Avot:
“It is good to combine Torah study with a worldly occupation, for the effort involved in both makes one forget sin. Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin.”
This statement seems to capture the spirit of Rabban Gamliel’s Talmudic times, when many rabbis had day jobs. As the Talmud reports: Hillel the Elder was a lumberjack, Shammai was a builder, Rabbi Yosi made fish nets, and Rav Huna raised cattle. These rabbis, and many others, had these jobs out of necessity; they needed to earn a living to support themselves and their families. But Rabban Gamliel’s teaching also ascribes a spiritual value to work. It keeps us from sin. Not only because it keeps us busy, but also because when we work in the world we engage with the world, and this gives us a broader perspective with which to enrich our understanding of Torah.
Labor can be used as oppression, but it can also be liberating. For that to happen, we need to be able to find our work meaningful. Labor Day is meant to help us do this. It is about more than end-of-summer barbeques and football; it can help us take a step back from our busyness and remember that our work can satisfy both our physical and spiritual needs. Dignified work can help us make a positive impact on our world. When we are able to achieve that, we can live a life of Torah and find our way to God.
So, this Labor Day, let’s consider the impact our work makes on our world, our communities and ourselves. Now please excuse me, I have to get back to work.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.