From The Chassidic Masters
Eating On The Job
Three times a day we approach G‑d to request our daily needs. “Give dew and rain,” we plead; “Bless this year and all the varieties of its produce”; “Grant complete cure and healing to all our ailments.” Our prayers for the blessings of material life reach their height during the month of Elul and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which our material fate for the coming year is decided. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die . . . who shall enjoy tranquillity and who shall suffer affliction, who shall be impoverished and who shall gain wealth . . .”
The Chassidic masters ask: On what basis do we make these requests for health and prosperity? Are we simply appealing to G‑d’s benevolence, or do we have a “right” to these things? Many accept as a given the obligations of man towards his Creator; but do these, in turn, obligate the Al‑mighty in any way toward His earthly servants? Specifically, what would halachah (Torah law) dictate regarding the Al‑mighty’s duties towards the earthly creatures He created and who labor on His behalf?
(For although G‑d invented these laws, He too, by choice, is bound by them. In the words of the Midrash, Sh’mos Rabbah 30:6, “G‑d’s way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not do himself; G‑d, however, what He Himself does, that is what He tells Israel to do and observe.”)
The Slave, The Employee, And The Partner
To define G‑d’s legal obligations to us, we first need to define our legal relationship with Him. There are, in fact, three models for this relationship: the slave, the employee, and the partner.
Which of these models our individual life fits into is entirely up to us. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) states: “In the manner in which man measures himself, so is meted out to him.” G‑d leaves it to us to define our vision of life and our relationship with Him, and then relates to us accordingly. So it is up to us whether to perceive—and thus define—the labor of life via the mentality of the “slave,” the attitude of the “employee,” or the perspective of the “partner.”
Some are apt to see themselves as slaves of an autocratic master. “I didn’t ask to be born,” goes this line of thinking, “nor was I consulted when the laws of life were formulated. All this was imposed on me. As it says in Avos, ‘Against your will you are born, and against your will you die.’ My Master is all-powerful, so I had best carry out His commands.”
Others adopt the less apathetic attitude of the employee. “I have a job to do,” is their approach, “and I’ll give it my best effort. And has G‑d not promised to reward my toil? True, our Sages have established that ‘there is no reward for mitzvos in this world’; but certainly the eventual rewards of the World to Come will more than compensate for my present-day labors.”
This vision of life—life as a job—is expressed by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon in the closing words of the second chapter of Avos:
“The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing. . . . It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your Employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. Know that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.”
Finally, there are those who experience life as a partnership. They, too, are “slaves” in the sense that they acknowledge G‑d’s absolute mastery over their lives; they, too are “employees” in the sense that He has defined their life’s assignment and has promised to reward them for their labor. But they also believe that man has been granted the ability to elevate life into a partnership with G‑d. As G‑d’s partners, they develop themselves and they develop their world in accordance with the Divine will—not only because they must, nor merely to “do their job,” but as an intensely personal enterprise. Life is their joint venture with G‑d—a venture conceived and enabled by Him, but fueled by their own initiative and ambition.
The Initial Verdict
So, what does Torah law legislate in regard to these three models of the G‑d–man relationship?
At first glance, it would seem that however we define our relationship with G‑d, our life’s toil on His behalf does not obligate Him toward us in any way, at least not regarding our material needs and wants.
If we are His slaves, G‑d already owns the product of our toil. On the other extreme, if we are His partners, we are laboring for ourselves as well as for Him: for the “partner”—to again quote Avos—“The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” When the perfect world that is the aim of G‑d and man’s “joint venture” is complete, this will itself yield the ultimate spiritual and material reward for man. “At that time,” writes Rambam in the closing words of his Mishneh Torah, “There will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. . . . ‘For the world shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters submerge the sea’” (Yeshayah 11:9).
The only one who might seem to have any legal claim is the “employee.” Indeed, the Torah commands an employer, “Do not delay the wages of your employee overnight” (Vayikra 19:13). But this law applies only to a day laborer, not to one who is hired for a longer period or to accomplish a specific task. In such cases, the law is that “wages must be paid only at the conclusion of the employment” (Talmud, Eruvin 22a). So when G‑d tells us, “Today, is the time to do; tomorrow, to receive reward,” this is fully in keeping with the laws He instituted to govern the employer-employee relationship: He owes us our wages only upon the completion of the collective task for which He has “hired” us.
Get A Better Lawyer
This is what a cursory look at the law yields. But a more thorough examination reveals a series of laws that G‑d commanded in His Torah which would obligate Him to provide us with our daily needs in all three cases—whether we define our duties toward Him as those of the slave, the employee, or the partner.
The slave. “A master is obligated to make his Hebrew slave or Hebrew maid equal to himself in food, drink, clothing, and dwelling. This is derived from the verse ‘for it is beneficial to him together with you’ (Devarim 15:16)—i.e., you cannot eat fine bread and feed him coarse bread; drink aged wine and have him drink new wine; sleep on soft fibers and have him sleep on straw. . . . Thus it has been said: one who acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires for himself a master . . .” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Slaves 1:9; Talmud, Kiddushin 20a).
The employee. In Devarim 23:24–25 we read: “When you enter your fellow’s vineyard (as an employee), you may eat your fill of grapes, at your desire. . . . When you enter the standing crop of your fellow, you may pluck grain with your hands . . .” These verses are interpreted by our Sages to mean: “[Regarding] workers who are employed in processing produce of the earth that has not yet reached its final desired state . . . the employer is commanded to allow them to eat from the produce they are working with.” This is quite apart from the wages owed to the employee upon completion of the term of his employment. This law applies to work animals as well; as the Torah (Devarim 25:4) commands, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” (Rashi ad loc.; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Hire 12:1).
The partner. A law dealing with a partnership that parallels our own joint endeavor with the Al-mighty reads: “If a person gives eggs to a chicken farmer so that he will seat his chickens on them until they hatch and he will raise the chicks, with the understanding that the profit is to be divided between them, he is obligated to also pay him his labor and feeding costs” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Agents and Partners 8:1; Talmud, Bava Metzia 68b). To have the chicken farmer hatch the eggs and raise the chicks solely for the promise of profit would be a violation of the prohibition against usury (see Rashi on Talmud, ibid.). So when G‑d gives us a world to develop and perfect as a “profit sharing” venture, Torah law mandates that He also provide us with the daily expenses our work entails.
This is the basis for Rambam’s explanation of the material, this-worldly, rewards promised by the Torah when the people of Israel fulfill the commandments of the Torah (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 9:1):
“Since we know that the reward for the mitzvos is . . . the life of the World to Come . . . why does it say throughout the Torah, ‘If you obey, you will receive such and such; if you do not obey, it shall happen to you such and such’—all this, things that are of the present world, such as plenty and hunger, war and peace, sovereignty and subjugation, inhabitancy of the land and exile, success and failure, etc.? . . . The explanation of this [apparent contradiction] is: G‑d gave us this Torah; it is a Tree of Life, and whoever observes all that is written in it and knows it with a complete knowledge merits thereby the life of the World to Come. . . . Yet G‑d also promised us in the Torah that if we observe it with joy. . . . He will remove from us all things that may prevent us from fulfilling it, such as illness, war, hunger, etc., and He will bestow upon us all blessings that bolster our hand to observe the Torah, such as abundant food, peace, and much gold and silver, so that we need not preoccupy ourselves all our days with our material needs but be free to learn the wisdom and observe the commandments by which we shall merit the life of the World to Come . . .”
So, concludes the Rebbe, when we approach G‑d in prayer, we can do so with the confidence that no matter what level we have attained in identifying with our life’s mission—whether we have achieved the commitment of a partner, or only the responsibility of an employee, or merely the resignation of a slave or beast of burden—He will surely heed our requests and bless us with health, sustenance, and tranquillity.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.