Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Holy Work

Every now and then, I get asked to contribute to the URJ's "Ask Your Jewish Question" (formerly known as "Ask a Rabbi") feature. One recently came my way:
Could you do a piece about how going to work during the 6 days of the week is part of the mitzvah of fulfilling Shabbat, and how we should also find meaning in what we do during those 6 days? Sometimes it is easy to forget that going to our jobs can be meaningful...and even a mitzvah. I get easily lost in the daily grind of my own job. Thanks for all the hard work you guys do. Best—Marie (Chana)
It's not published yet, but here's my response:
During the week, are we allowed to work, or are we commanded to work? And, is any of that work holy?
“6 days you shall labor and do all your work, but the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai your God: you shall not do any work…” That’s what God said at Sinai, according to Exodus 20:9-10. And, in its context, the Hebrew is probably saying that we’re allowed to work during the 6 days. That’s just a preamble to the real commandment, which is Shabbat.
But, whatever the original intent was, that’s not how the rabbis of old read it. Midrash Rabbah, an ancient collection of Midrashim (Rabbinic teachings on the Torah) reads the text hyper-literally and understands both parts to be commandments—you must work during the 6 days, just like you must rest on the 7th. In fact, we are told that “Great is work, because God’s presence does not rest upon Israel until they perform work, as it says, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ ” Holiness doesn’t come to those who sit around and wait for it; holiness comes to those who are willing to work for it! So, our tradition understands that there is, indeed, holy work to be done during the week. Anything that we do which makes it possible to experience holiness in the world is, itself, holy work. And, although not every moment of every job is easily understood as helping to bring holiness to the world, each of us can find ways to do so, at least some of the time. We can challenge ourselves by asking how our jobs, how our efforts, can not only justify our salaries, but can also make the world a bit holier.
There are, however, some rabbis who are willing to go a step further. Rabbeinu Bahai, speaking in the name of Maimonides teaches that even seemingly mundane acts can, in fact, be holy. Deeds which seem totally secular, such as commercial matters, can be done with holy intent. That’s a grounding principle of the spiritual philosophy of the Hassidic masters—the intent with which we do something has more to do with its holiness than the act itself. Anything that we do, no matter how far from holy pursuit it may seem, can be holy if we decide to make it so. By inclining our minds and our hearts towards holiness, the simplest, least obviously holy work can be filled with sanctity. After all, if there is really no place without God (and, we seem pretty sure that there isn’t!), then there is also no action where we can’t find God’s presence—God is everywhere, including in our jobs, even if it’s not always obvious how.
So, find ways to use your daily work to make our world holier, and find ways to make our daily work holy itself. Then, and only then, will we be fulfilling the full mitzvah of Shabbat!

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