Online Adult Jewish learning
Jacob Works for Laban
Issue: A Jewish Work Ethic
PART 1: SOURCES
The Torah devotes much attention to Jacob's work as a shepherd, first for Laban and then for his own sheep. These narratives contain valuable lessons about proper work attitudes. In this topic, we will examine four such lessons following the chronology of the Torah narratives:
1) Upon Jacob's arrival in Charan, he confronts a group of local shepherds lingering beside a well. Sforno explains Jacob's reaction to their idleness.
? - A righteous person protests wrongful behavior even when perpetrated by strangers with whom he has no connection.
2) The business deals between Jacob and Laban reveal Jacobs work integrity. After fourteen years of shepherding Laban's flock, Jacob asks Laban to divide the flock so that he can support himself with his own flock. Before negotiating the division, Laban mentions the favorable results of Jacob's past years of work.
- Jacob told Laban, "Do not attribute your increased flock to divination that is based on good luck; rather, attribute it to my hard work, performed with skill and effort in tending the sheep. However, your statement that G-d blessed you upon my arrival is true.
3) In finalizing the deal between them, Jacob assures Laban of his past integrity while shepherding Labans flock.
- When you will inspect the sheep in the portion that is my flock, their number will testify to my integrity in working for you. G-d will increase my share as a reward for my labors.
4) Jacob responds to Labans accusations of theft by recounting his extraordinary care and protection of Labans flock.
- [You suspect me of theft?] The opposite is what you have seen in my behavior. Not only did I serve you faithfully, but I also benefited you by my efforts to prevent any miscarriages among your sheep. I did not even eat from your flock, as other shepherds allow themselves to do.
- I compensated you for any sheep that had been mauled due to my negligence; however, I did not assume responsibility for non-preventable accidental deaths. Nevertheless, you unjustly forced me to reimburse you.
PART 2: SYNOPSIS OF SOURCES
Jacob demonstrated a superb work ethic, which he knew to be the reason for G-d's blessings of prosperity.
PART 3: LECTURE
Several years ago, I spoke with a veteran educator about the opportunities in the field of Jewish education in Israel. What qualities or skills were necessary to successfully enter this field? His response identified the greatest obstacle to successful employment in every field of endeavor: a conscientious work ethic. For numerous reasons, most employees withhold themselves from employing their fullest effort in working.
In emphasizing an employees responsibility to his employer, he cited Maimonides Code of Jewish law:
Maimonides(Laws of Wages 13:7)
People present numerous excuses for restraining themselves from utilizing their talents to the fullest. A low salary, "Everyone else does it," and simple laziness are a few of the common spoken and unspoken justifications for slipshod performance in work.
Rabbi Yonah (1180-1263 Spain) identifies three common misconceptions that many people have about employment.
Talmud(Tractate Ethics of the Fathers 1:9)
(1st century BCE, Israel) says: Love work, despise lordliness, and avoid the authorities (government).
: There are two reasons for Shemayahs warning against idleness:
Reason #1: While it is clearly acceptable to seek employment in a field of work that attracts one's interest or utilizes one's talents, one must not lose sight of G-d's purpose in obligating man to work: to keep man occupied. In his post-Garden of Eden existence, man requires the regular activity of employment to prevent him from falling into bad ways (see the Isaac course, Lesson Four, Topic Two). Vacation offers a necessary interruption from work so that man can rejuvenate himself and can engage in other activities that he is not be able to do while actively working.
Reason #2: Immediate gratification versus pleasure to be enjoyed at some future date is one of the most common dilemmas of mankind. Should we try to gain all the pleasure we can now, or should we pass up such opportunities in favor of other pleasurable experiences we look forward to at a later date? When this question is applied to the hours one devotes to pursuit of a livelihood, people sometimes reason as follows: Work is supposed to provide for my basic needs so that I may enjoy leisurely activities. If leisure is my goal, then while I am on the job, I should take advantage of any chance for leisure I can.
This line of reasoning is misguided. While a person may indeed succeed in achieving a measure of relaxation at first, in the long run his failure to work diligently and consistently will force him to work harder and longer hours in order to get the job done. King Solomon describes this phenomenon which occurs in every profession in agricultural terms:
King Solomons "lazy one" believes that inactivity will result in more inactivity, but the truth is that his inactivity will force him to work more while gaining less or nothing at all. One who decides to remain indoors during the cold winter season, avoiding his responsibility to prepare for the harvest, deceives himself into thinking that he will be able to continue to live this leisurely routine indefinitely. When the summer season arrives, though, he will starve, since he failed to prepare for the harvest. Had he exerted himself in the winter, he would have been able to harvest a crop that would have supported and sustained him throughout the next year. Steady work will yield more leisure time.
Shemayah's first statement identifies the necessity to work diligently. Attempting to avoid work will lead to an indolent character and, ultimately, more work hours.
Rabbi Yonah proceeds to explain Shemayahs second statement.
: Despise arrogance in your work. When considering a job offer, do not convince yourself that certain jobs are beneath your dignity, choosing to remain unemployed. Instead, take the job for its pay.
Shemayahs words are addressed to an individual whose ego prevents him from accepting a job he feels is degrading. Obviously one should initially seek work that utilizes ones talents to the utmost; but along with this one must bear in mind the real reason one works: Work is not an activity intended simply to pamper our egos and lend prestige to our lives; it is a means by which to support ourselves and our families.
Rabbi Yonah concludes by illuminating the third part of Shemayahs maxim.
: Shemayah advises against working for the government of a dictatorial monarch (which was the typical form of government in ancient times, and which can be compared to any overbearing employer). Such employment exposes one to religious, to moral and to financial dangers.
By its very nature, working in the service of a dictatorial monarch necessarily interferes with an employees religious and moral obligations. Both fear of the king's presence and the necessity to render total service to the king which requires punctual and efficient work will eventually lead to an undermining of the employees service to G-d. An egotistical ruler who demands strict obedience will inevitably lead a worker to a relaxation of his own moral standards of behavior.
This statement should be understood in light of another statement found in Ethics of the Fathers: "Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need." (Ethics of the Fathers 2:3)
Having dealt with the factors of idleness and arrogance that keep people from working, Shemayah concludes with the person who is prepared to work, but chooses the wrong type of employment. As we studied in Lesson Four of the Isaac course (Topic Two), Torah study and an honest occupation constitute G-d's two-point formula for achieving human perfection.
While Torah study educates a person in the knowledge of G-d's standard for moral behavior, gainful employment keeps one productively occupied. In applying this formula, it is axiomatic that the one half of this program, employment, should not contradict the other half, the ethical teachings of the Torah. Working in the service of a dictatorial monarch carries both spiritual and physical dangers. Constant exposure to an egotistical ruler, combined with the necessity for strict obedience to his will, will inevitably lead to a relaxation of one's moral standards of behavior. On a physical level, the rigid demands of a dictator combined with the unconditional obedience due him puts ones assets at risk of being confiscated, if not endangering his own life.
Jacob's arrival in Charan brought him into contact with his cunning uncle, Laban, and an equally dangerous idolatrous Aramean society. His first encounter with the local shepherds found them standing idly beside a blocked well. The unproductive sight of sheep neither pasturing nor drinking evoked a candid accusation of impropriety. A midrash explores Jacob's inquiry:
? (Genesis 29:7)
To this scenario, Shemayah said: "Love work."
During the twenty years of Jacob's residence in Charan, Laban repeatedly deceived him. Jacob forcefully confronts Laban with this accusation:
Jacob declares that he had not allowed his self-esteem to prevent him from enduring the harshness of searing heat or frigid cold to protect Laban's flock. His commitment to perform the pastoral work that Laban needed did not find him averse to demeaning himself to carry out his work responsibility to Laban.
In supporting Jacobs claim, Shemayah said, "despise lordliness."
The greatest declaration of Jacob's superb work ethic derives from his moral integrity, even under the most difficult circumstances. A brief survey of the challenges to Jacobs integrity follows:
Though circumstances required Jacob to work for an overbearing and dishonest employer, Jacob did not succumb to the pressures to reciprocate Labans unethical behavior.
Considering Laban's conniving behavior, why did Jacob persevere in his honest work ethic?
Jacobs enduring integrity makes sense only if one understands the deeper significance of work. The conversation between Jacob and Laban is illuminating for the view it provides of these two mens very different attitudes toward work.
As Sforno explains, Laban viewed the material blessing of his flock as an auspicious fortune that happened to come his way in the wake of Jacobs arrival. From Labans behavior towards Jacob, it is clear that Laban carried over this idea of randomness into his own moral life, not obeying a strict moral code or principled work ethic.
Jacobs response identified G-d as the source of mans prosperity. Jacobs outlook led him to adopt a principled work ethic even when dealing with a corrupt employer, such a Laban. The results of Jacobs recognition of G-d and the reliance on His blessings extended far beyond the sphere of his occupation.
In a broader sense, a good work ethic can even be applied to the labor we do constantly: living. If we see G-d as our employer and good deeds as our assignment, it becomes clear that our work ethic lasts longer than nine to five. Just as we must earn a wage from earthly employers, so too must we earn our ultimate reward through the integrity of our actions during our lifetime. Jacobs strict adherence to an honest work ethic reflected his outlook on life itself. Jacobs life was one of devoted service to his true Employer. He prepared himself for this Divine service by being scrupulous and honest in his earthly service. Jacob viewed none of his actions as inconsequential; every job is a training ground for his devotion to G-d.