Tradition Today: Torah and work

The task that God gave to Adam in the garden, “to till it and tend it” (Genesis 2:15) is the task given to every human being.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the central figure of Lag Ba’omer celebrations, was one of the most colorful figures of the Tannaitic period. He became so well known that numerous legends grew up about him and even the authorship of the Zohar was ascribed to him, although it was clearly written in Spain in the Middle Ages.
Bar Yohai was a man given to extremes. A pupil of Rabbi Akiva, he shared his teacher’s abhorrence of the Romans and put himself in danger. Whereas Akiva defied the Romans by teaching Torah in public when the Hadrianic decrees had forbidden it, Bar Yohai’s defiance was in making unguarded remarks about the Romans and denigrating their civilization, remarks which were undoubtedly true but were certainly politically incorrect and dangerous at the time after the Bar Kochba debacle when the Romans were in complete control of Judea.
Nothing was to be gained by his words. There was no way in which the Roman authorities could be challenged or defied at that time.
The result was that he was denounced to the Romans and both he and his son had to flee and to hide away in order to save their lives.
How they did so became the subject of a legend. As told in the Talmud, however, the story is both another illustration of his extremism and a rebuke of it. According to Shabbat 33b, they hid in a cave where a miracle occurred: a carob tree grew and a water well sprang up so they that they had food and water in abundance. They took off their garments and sat covered with sand and studied Torah all day long, except for times of prayer when they put on garments. That way their clothing lasted for years.
This went on for 12 years, after which the emperor who wanted them dead died himself and they could emerge. But when they came out, the story continues, they had nothing but contempt for people who did anything but study all day long. Having experienced such a life in which they had to do nothing in order to keep alive and had no needs since everything was furnished for them miraculously, they forgot what real life was all about. In the words of the Talmud, “Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, ‘They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!’ and whatever they looked upon was immediately burnt up.” Because of this they were punished from Heaven by having to go back into the cave for another year. When they emerged on Friday before Shabbat, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running to get home before Shabbat, and when they asked him what they were for, he replied, “In honor of the two commandments of Shabbat – ‘Remember’ and ‘Observe.’” Upon hearing that Bar Yohai said, “See how precious are the commandments to Israel!” The lesson God taught Bar Yohai is that the world cannot exist unless people engage in the normal pursuits of living. Unless farmers plow, there will be no food, and without food humanity will die.
Therefore do not disparage those who must work and cannot sit isolated and do nothing but study all day long. That would be the end of civilization, the end of society, the end of the Jewish people. Ordinary people who work for a living can still be pious and still honor the commandments. There is time for study and time for work and we cannot depend upon miracles to keep the world going. That is why a core curriculum for all children, teaching them the skills needed to earn a living, is not only a national imperative, but a religious imperative as well.
This lesson is something that Judaism learned long ago and our greatest scholars managed to both study and work. Certainly that was always expected of the general population. It is not either Torah or work but rather Torah and work. The task that God gave to Adam in the garden, “to till it and tend it” (Genesis 2:15) is the task given to every human being. We have to till the world and tend it in whatever way is necessary. It is a task we cannot escape and we cannot expect others to do it while we spend our lives divorced from the world. That is not the way of the Torah.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).