ALL WORK AND NO PRAY
Sitting in his astoundingly comfortable swivel chair in his spacious office, Jake looks at his billing statement one more time, and with a small shrug leans back into his chair's enveloping embrace.
Sitting in his astoundingly comfortable swivel chair in his spacious office, Jake looks at his billing statement one more time, and with a small shrug leans back into his chair's enveloping embrace. With eyes wandering around his illustrious office, the product of countless hours of sweat and toil, he once again hesitates about his billing. True, he did not really work all of the hours he had registered, and it is hard to justify a basketball game as time invested in thinking about the case, "But if I don't bill those extra hours," he thinks, "imagine how much money I'll be losing." With another shrug and an infinitesimal sigh, his conscience drops the irking subject and the book is closed.
In this week's Torah portion, the Children of Israel finally toss aside the body and soul-wrenching slavery of Egypt and embark on their journey to the land of Israel. Hashem, our constant guide and shepherd, is in turn faced with the decision as to which path He will choose for His eager nation to travel on in their journey to Israel. On one side lies the land of the Philistines, filled with food and drink and all the other basic physical needs of a large nation; unfortunately it is also full of Philistines who, known for their rank deeds, could provide quite a terrible influence on the recently enslaved Israelites, who according to our sages had reached the 49th level of impurity while in Egypt (frightening, since there are only 50). On the other side lay the desert, bare of all physical provisions, filled with snakes, scorpions, and a scalding and scorching sun, but empty of sinister influences.
Hashem's choice of the desert serves as a profound lesson that echoes through all times. Better that one should place himself in a position where he is unsure of his next meal than to enter into a place that threatens his morality and is a danger to his soul. Fear not, Hashem tells the petrified Jews, I will provide for you Myself, albeit miraculously. Hashem will never abandon us, and if necessary bread will fall, albeit secretly, from the heavens to feed us. As long as we follow His commandments and put in an effort to provide for ourselves, we have no reason to fear the unknown future.
The Talmud states (Tractate Pesachim 118) that Hashem's providing food for the Jewish people is as difficult as the splitting of the sea. The question arises, is anything truly difficult for Hashem? And what is the comparison between these two apparently unrelated miracles? The Chofetz Chaim, the saintly Torah scholar and leader at the turn of this century, explains that just like by the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people had to wade until they were neck deep before Hashem tore the water asunder, so too one must try his best to earn a living, but once he has done his utmost according to Hashem's laws, Hashem will provide the remainder. This is the difficulty of earning a living: achieving and maintaining the complete trust that Hashem will supply one's needs, despite the financial obstacles that seem to be created by keeping His laws.
Besides the constant danger of our morality being threatened by our work, there is also the fear that we may become too engrossed in the pursuit of our wealth and overzealous in our toils. If one examines the world around us, one may notice that besides humans - the dominant species of the world - no other animal in its natural environment seems to have any trouble in providing for itself and its family. Seldom does one find a starving pigeon or undernourished fish. Why is it that we have such difficulties in finding a stable income? The answer is simple: As an unfortunate result of Adam's sin and his lowering of himself from his heavenly sphere, Hashem cursed Mankind, "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he decided to enter the world of physicality and impurity, and therefore was forced to immerse himself in that world and survive only by drawing his sustenance from the miserly earth. However, in the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leading 20th century Jewish thinker in England and Israel, we should not relish this awful curse and we should not immerse ourselves in its bitterness. To a certain degree, we should desire to abstain from it as much as possible, to work only as much as we need for our basic provisions, rather than allowing it to control our thoughts. Instead, we should engage ourselves in the true blessings of this world, our ability to follow the ways of Hashem and to be a source of joy to the people around us.
The final danger of the workplace is the feelings of overconfidence and arrogance which can develop within us when we are successful, that it is our hands and our minds that have provided our sustenance and built the little world that encircles us. As expressed by Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the saintly mashgiach (spiritual advisor) of the famed Mir Yeshiva during the first part of this century, we must realize that it is Hashem who gives those hands the strength to work, who protects our bodies from harm, and who allows us to awaken in the morning healthy and blessed with the constant gift of life. Even the intellect and vigorous arms themselves are gifts from our beloved Maker. This lesson is most clearly seen in Hashem's provision of the manna, the archetype for the Jew's future sustenance. No matter how much each individual gathered of the heavenly bread, any amount beyond his regimented share wasted away to nothing. Similarly, no matter how hard we strive and strain and ply our mental prowess, it is ultimately Hashem who decides how much we will have, and in His hidden ways He provides it all for us.
As we enter our place of work, we must remember that, as part of our mission on this earth, we must bring holiness and the ways of Hashem to our most mundane and physical tasks. By keeping Hashem's laws with vigor and zeal, despite the tempting influences of corruption and evil that ensconce us; by realizing that work is not a focus and goal, but a tool for serving our Creator; and at last by recognizing Hashem's hand in our everyday urbane world - we can truly sanctify our workplace and ourselves, wrenching spirituality from the grasps of the physical world. With the strength of our will and by trusting in Hashem, we can truly elevate ourselves and the world around us.
With a twang in his heart, Jake adjusts his yarmulke and reopens the guilt-ridden page. Slowly and meticulously, he erases the gross misrepresentations, and as the dollars decrease, he proclaims his trust in the loving hands of Hashem. As the forces inside him declare, "Look what you have just lost," he feels the surging of his soul and the slight elevation of his existence towards his Creator, and thinks, "but look what I've gained."
Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.
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