Work Ethics and the Rolling Stones – Parshat Vayetze
A few weeks ago we discussed the concept of “ma’aseh avot siman lebanim”. We quoted the standard understanding of this notion as perceived by Radak that many of the stories of the Avot are recorded in order than we can learn from them. We should delve into the lives of our forefathers in order that we may know how to conduct ourselves as upstanding human beings and members of the Jewish nation.
When we look at this week’s parsha we may be somewhat confused as to the nature of the message we are supposed to glean from the stories therein. After all, most of us do not spend our days moving large stones, shepherding our flocks, negotiating between our various wives or dealing with deceitful tricksters. Despite the above, we suggest that there are various poignant messages in the parsha, relevant to even in this day and age.
Midrash Tanchuma towards the end of the parsha makes the following statement:
“The merit of work stands in a place where the merit of (our) fathers does not …..
Man must toil and work with his two hands and Hashem will send him His blessing”
These words of the Midrash are based on the following verses:
“Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night and sleep fled from my eyes. Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages time and again. Had not the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzchak, been with me, you would have sent me away empty handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave me judgment last night.” (Bereishit 31:40-42)
With these words Ya’akov explains his behavior towards Lavan and emphasizes the dedication he had shown in his work over the last twenty years. Day and night, summer and winter without a break, Ya’akov labored until God saw and showed concern for the toil of his hands. From this Chazal learn the concept of a work ethic, the importance of investing in “derech eretz” coupled with Torah.
Ya’akov states, a few verses earlier, that he devoted himself completely to his work as a shepherd:
“Ya’akov had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was. He said to them ‘I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past, but the God of my father has been with me. As you know, I have served your father with all my might’.” (Bereishit 31:4-6)
Rambam, in Mishneh Torah, uses this passuk to explain a halacha connected to the employee:
“He (the employee) is obligated to work with all his strength, for Ya’akov the righteous one said ‘for I have served your father with all my might’. Therefore he received reward also in this world, as it says ‘and the man grew exceedingly prosperous’.” (Hilchot Sechirut 13:11)
According to Rambam, we learn from Ya’akov the extent to which an employee must dedicate himself to his work and Ya’akov’s success is proof that such a person shall receive his reward already in this world (as well as in the next).
In an article which deals with the obligations of man in this world, Mori VeRabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein develops an idea based on the verse in parshat Bereishit:
“The Lord God took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till (work) it and tend (guard) it.” (Bereishit 2:15) Rav Lichtenstein claims that we can expand this concept beyond the borders of Gan Eden and understand it as the basis for our existence in this world. Furthermore in a subsequent article, Rav Lichtenstein quotes the above cited Rambam and comments on the idea discussed:
“The Rambam, of course, addresses a situation where you work for somebody else, in which case it is simply theft if you are slack in your duty. But the question of whether or not a person is doing things be-khol kocho applies not only to interpersonal relationships with one’s boss, but also to one’s relationship with “The Boss.” The Almighty has commanded us to engage in yishuvo shel olam—doing something constructive within society—but one can do that either half-heartedly or with full dedication.” (By His Light P42)
The obligation to work hard is thus understood not merely as an aspect of employer/employee relations but rather as a notion by which one should approach any task in life, including and possibly especially, our avodat Hashem.
[It is worth noting that Ya’akov’s words to Lavan quoted above “et onyi ve’et yegia kapai” bear a clear similarity to the words of the Psalmist “yegia kapecha ki tochel, ashrecha vetov lach” (Tehillim 128:2). The mizmor suggest that when one partakes of the labor of one’s own hands, happiness is achieved.]
Let us return to an earlier episode in our parsha. On arrival at the well where he eventually meets Rachel, Ya’akov is surprised to find a gathering of shepherds who are, for some reason, not giving water to their flocks. When Ya’akov enquires as to why this is, he is told that the rock which covers the well was so large that it required a number of people to remove it before they could get to the water.
However, when Ya’akov sees Rachel and realizes that she too is hoping to quench the thirst of her father’s sheep, Ya’akov single-handedly rolls the rock off the top of the well and proceeds to give Rachel’s flock water. How was Ya’akov able to do this? From where did he gain such strength to perform a task which normally can only be achieved by a group of people working together?
Rashbam explains that the Torah is telling us how strong Ya’akov was in that he was in fact able to move the stone by himself. Radak suggests that either he had the assistance of other shepherds who were there or that Hashem granted Ya’akov extra strength.
We suggest based on the comments of the mefarshim that Ya’akov found extra inner strength because he felt a great need to move the stone. The Torah tells us that Ya’akov acted as soon as he saw “Rachel, daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother, and the sheep of Lavan the brother of his mother”. He rolled the rock off the well and gave water to “the sheep of Lavan the brother of his mother.” We note that the phrase “the brother of his mother” is found three times in one passuk. We generally assume that Ya’akov’s newfound might stemmed from his wanting to impress Rachel and thereby win her heart. However, the Torah suggests that his actions bear a closer connection to Rachel’s lineage and specifically her relationship to his mother.
It would appear that, if we do not assume direct Divine intervention (Ruach Hakodesh could mean Divine inspiration which does not refer to a direct miracle), Ya’akov gains his power and strength from his mother. After all, it was Rivka who convinced him to fight for his rights and “steal” the bracha from his brother. It was his mother who warned him of Esav’s threat to kill him and it was she who persuaded Yitzchak that Ya’akov had to leave their home, albeit under the reasonable pretense of searching for a wife.
When Ya’akov sees Rachel, the daughter of the brother of his mother, he recalls all that Rivka sacrificed during her life, both in general and particularly on his behalf. At this point Ya’akov realizes that in order for him to accomplish even half of that achieved by his mother he will have to discover his inner strength and hope for Divine inspiration. This, then, is the significance of the stone-rolling episode. Ya’akov is on foreign land and is overjoyed to have found the connection to his family. But more than that, he internalizes much of what Rivka has been conveying to him for many years. In order to achieve anything in life, one has to push oneself and look for one’s hidden strength. Ya’akov rolls the giant stone and with it gives way to a new aspect of his personality. The new Ya’akov is no longer a pushover; nor does he need his mother to tell him what to do. With Rivka’s legacy implanted in his mind, Ya’akov knows that he can do whatever he puts his mind to. All he needs is will power, self confidence and, of course, a little help from Hashem.
We can all learn much from Ya’akov’s resilience and achievements in this parsha. Not only does he work hard and devote himself to the task at hand. Ya’akov also moves the rock – he does something extraordinary because he believed he could and wanted to do so. In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way.