Friday, November 7, 2008

The Value of of Work

Buried in today's midrashim is a peculiar little piece. In number (English) 79, we read a little midrash from Tanhuma which suggests that the reason for the building of the MIshkan may have been, well, busywork.

It drashes the word Vayehi with the vav-yud combination being read as "woe", thus giving us, "Woe on the day that Moses made an end of setting up the Tabernacle" (hehe, I just love the word, Tabernacle. If one isn't a Mormon, how often can one use it these days? Anyhow...) So, why, "woe?" Because, says the midrash, building the mishkan can be made analogous to to someone who has a grumpy (well, wife in this case, but anyone one is tied to in some way will work) wife - the king gave her a task (one, which, by the way, required a lot of skill and effort) and while she was involved with it, she did not grumble, but as soon as the task was finished, she brought it to him and he started to grumble. She was rightfully annoyed and asked why he was moaning, and he answered that she was pleasant to be around while she was working, and now that she was done, he was afraid she would start to nag him again.

A couple of thoughts, not necessarily connected, occurred to me while reading this:
First, it reminds me of other midrashim that make clear that work is considered valuable for its own sake:

Avot d’rabbi natan (perek 2) a commentary on what is sometimes called “the sayings of the fathers” – mishna avot, comments on this passage
"Love work, hate lordship and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers."

The commentary says:
Love work: what is that? This teaches that a person should love work and that no one should hate work, For even as the Torah was given as a covenant, so was work given as a covenant; as it is said, “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh say is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. (Ex 20:9 ff)

We so often think of Shabbat as our only covenant, but in fact, say the rabbis, work is also a covenant. In fact, Avot D'rabbi Natan goes on to say, "Rabbi Tarfon says: The Holy One, blessed Be, likewise did not cause the Shekhinah to rest upon Israel before they did work, as it is said, 'And let them make me a sanctuary, then I shall dwell among them.' (Ex. 25:8)"

From these midrashim, we get a sense that it is the act of working itself which is part of what makes us holy, and more to the point, that the act of building the Mishkan, because it is holy work, is ennobling, but that the daily work of our lives partakes of that holiness as well (as long as, of course, the work is not something sinful in itself), that we should value work for the sake of the fact that the habit of work makes us better people both as individuals and as a nation.

The midrash presented in Sefer Ha'aggadah here, however, seems to resist that idea. There, the work of Israel is something God did to keep us out of God's hair essentially, not to ennoble us or make us holy, and when it came to an end, God worried about our future behavior.

I suppose that's not entirely in contradiction to these other midrashim: one could also read it as saying that when we were in the wilderness, when we were a people who were held in God's hand and didn't otherwise have any task to which we needed to bend ourselves, we were in danger of becoming lazy and ungrateful. We could understand it as saying that there was a need for the work of building the Mishkan because otherwise we would fall out of the habits that made us deserving of redemption.

Now, that would be an interesting reading. And I say this because with the recent election, my mind naturally wanders in that direction:
First, there's the sort-of directly related link: we all had to work very hard to get the change in management to happen. Now that we have succeeded, though, we shouldn't think the work is over. What was the meaning of the Mishkan? It was the place where those in exile came together to get in touch with the divine. It was simultaneously a place of community and holiness, to bring God's will into the world. Now, without wandering into idolatry territory, let's tone that down to a human level:

The campaigning was not done for the sake of the election (just like the Mishkan shouldn't have been just to build a building) but was in order to begin something new, to begin to turn this country onto a path where our everyday behavior towards one another and towards the world would slowly be changed; where we would be able to put together leadership that would help us, as a country, organize to head in a better direction, to solve problems that have plagued us for the last 25 (or more) years.

There is always a danger when a new president comes in that once he (or, someday, im yirtzeh, she) begins, we turn to bitching and moaning because the problems don't just evaporate on the morrow. That's what our midrash warns of. If we are to make the work that we did in the process holy, then we have to realize that it isn't over. In fact, it will never be over. The mishkan may have been built, but the mishkan isn't finished being built just because the building is set up. The mishkan is not, in fact, just a building - the building of the mishkan is the start, not the finish, of the work to make ourselves fit for God. Holiness is not in things, but in us, and in the work that we do, every day, not just in the special projects that seem pretty and important.

Finally, there's also the sweet synchronicity of the work of work: if we say that we value work, that work is holy, then we must also value the people who do the work. How sweet it is that this presidency - I hope- will mark a return to valuing the actual people who work, and not necessarily just valuing people who have money.

I believe this president will honor that value, and so I say in honor of this midrash, and the idea that building the mishkan is not, in fact, busywork, as long as we move forward with the understanding that the work of creating the foundation is not the finished product, that there is an aggadah from the Talmud worth blending into the mix we have here:

“A favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: I am God's creature and my fellow is God's creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven. (Brachot 17a)

And finally, to close with Moshe's blessing upon Israel when they finished their work on the mishkan, and let it be upon us in the opening of what I pray will be a new era of building a mishkan of holy work, of valuing what is valuable.

אמר להם יהי רצון שֶּׁתִּשְּׁרֶה שכינה במעשה ידיכם, ויהי נועם ה' אלהינו עלינו וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ
(תהלים צ, יז).


May the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands. “May the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; Prosper the work of our hands.” (tehillim/psalms 90:17)

1 comment:

General Anna said...

Amen, amen, amen selah vaed! your post captures the moment precisely. And I do believe that it is human nature that while we are working, we focus on our goal and being productive towards it, while when we are idle, we turn to grumbling. How much more valuable it is to have a sense of agency, of action, and to be able to work towards an aim!