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Get Out of the Cave

Gila SacksFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

Can work  - not just self-evidently ‘good’ work, but work itself - be holy? This talk will argue that a work ethic is a necessary precondition for ethics as a whole; argue that work is perhaps the most fundamental Jewish value; and explain why it is the one which makes me most proud to be Jewish.

Gila Sacks works in the Departments for Education and Business overseeing the Government’s flagship £1.5bn apprenticeship programme. She previously worked in HM Treasury, Cabinet Office and No.10, including as Private Secretary to two PMs. Before work took over, Gila was a Limmud volunteer and learnt and taught across the community – she hopes to return to these soon!

I want to begin at this cave, this is a cave in the northern Israeli village of Peki’in and legend has it this was where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the Second Century, fled to escape from the Romans who had condemned him to death. Says the Talmud, he went and hid in this cave with his son and a miracle occurred and a carob tree and a water well were created for them and all day they would strip their garments and bury themselves up to their necks in sand and they would study and when it came time to pray they would put on their robes and they would pray. And so they dwelt for twelve years. Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said, “Who would tell the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree against him is annulled?” And so they left the cave. They saw a man ploughing and sowing in the field and they exclaimed they forsake life eternal for life temporal and whatever they cast their eyes upon was burnt up and destroyed. So a heavenly echo came forth and said you’ve come forth from your cave to destroy my world, get back in the cave. So they went back in to the cave and there they dwelt for 12 months. Let’s leave them in the cave and we’ll come back to them later. So to our talk, my name is Gila Sacks and many people might call me a workaholic, many people might call many of you a workaholic too. I spend my days, as Shoshana said, working in government on policies to help people get into and get on at work and I have let or perhaps embrace the opportunity for my work to largely define me, to dominate my energies perhaps at the expense of other things. So today I want to talk about work and why it is for me perhaps the most fundamental Jewish value. Now before we start, it goes without saying that we see the world not as it is but as we are, that we project. So of course it is easy for me to justify the choices I have made in my life by arguing that work is holy, but before I explain why this is, let me just set aside the counter arguments. Of course not all work is holy. Of course not all work brings dignity, of course lots of bad things are done in the name of work and of course those who cannot or choose not to work, there are many many other ways to god, meaning ways to meaning, of contributing. But this isn’t supposed to be a balanced analytical account of the ways in which work has and can be used to support or suppress religious ideals. It is instead a talk of why I believe a work ethic is perhaps a pre requisite for all ethics and why in what I, in my biased way, perceive to be the Jewish work ethic, makes me proud to be Jewish. To understand why work is so fundamental to the Jewish expression of what it is to be human, we have to start, of course, back in Eden. The  Torah famously contains two distinct accounts of creation and of the creation of humanity and work is fundamental to each. So in Genesis 1 we read that, “God created man in his image, created male and female and God blessed them and said to them, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. ” And then a chapter later, God plants a garden in Eden and places in the Garden the man who he has formed. “And God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.” Who is man? One, who works. The commentators explain Kivshuha, to dominate the earth, have control over it, man is one who works the earth. What I want to know is why? Why is work among the first commands given to man? Why is work the explanation, perhaps even the justification, for the creation of humanity? And let’s ask another question, despite these instructions, did Adam work in Eden? Perhaps not. We read that God planted a garden, that God caused the trees to grow and the trees to bear fruit and that God told Adam what food he could eat and what he couldn’t. So Adam and Eve eat forbidden fruit from a tree they didn’t plant and so comes the punishment or perhaps the consequence of their actions. “And to Adam he said because you listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying “don’t eat of it”, cursed is the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it, all the days of your life.” This difficult line is often read as a straight forward punishment, work is a curse but look at the words used. Often translated as, “the ground is cursed because of you” Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his amazing commentary, points out that the word b’avorecha means not a curse but “avorecha”, “it is for your sake”. He says not because you sinned but for your betterment, for your sake is the ground to be restrained in its development, it will no longer of its own offer you its product, only with a great deal of toil will you be able to enjoy any of it. As every enjoyment, everything good worth having has to be brought with work and toil so life in this  sense has already begun to teach him that what is bitter is not always bad and what is sweet is not always good. In Eden there was the commandment to work but perhaps not the necessity to work, without work man sins and the consequence of this sin, the experience of eating fruit for which you did not have to toil, is the necessity to work. What is hard is not always bad because everything good has to be bought with hard work and the warning from Eden echoes throughout the Rabbinic texts, work is necessary for human wellbeing and humans relationship with God and not simply work which is simply self-evidently good, not simply work serving God, but work per se, melacha – creative, physical work, changing something from one state to another.  Without it, even a life filled with Torah is at risk of sin says the Mishna very famously, “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said; great is the study of Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for exertion in them both puts sin out of the mind.” But it carries on, “All study of Torah which is not combined with work ultimately comes to nothing and causes sin.” So work is fundamental to being human but it is also fundamental to our relationship with God. It is a positive mitzvah, apositive commandment right up there with our Ten Commandments at Sinai, to work, “Six days you shall labour and do all your work.” And so according to the rabbinic texts, Avot d’Rabbi Natan just as Torah was given as a covenant at Sinai, so work is a covenant. What does that mean for work to be a covenant? It means perhaps that work is a fundamental part of our commitment to and critically our partnership with God, something we choose to freely give, to regularly give to serve God and work in partnership with God as his people. So, what have we found? Man was created to work and work was created to help man find meaning and fulfilment without work we are at risk of sin and work is part of our covenantal relationship with God. Why? Why is work so important to what it means to be human and what it means to be Jewish? Because, through work you recognise, discover and express your own power; your ability to affect the world, to be self-determining, to be free. Only once you know how to work can you be responsible, tikun olam, an imperative to use your individual freedom and power to do good in the world, to improve the world, can only follow a worth ethic, a belief in your ability to be powerful. A recognition of your own personal freedom and potential. So my argument that a work ethic is a pre requisite for ethics, you must see and believe in your ability to act before you can take on the mantle of responsible action and that is what I love about Judaism. It is fully, firmly of this world. It refuses to be used as an excuse to escape the hard work of this world. Work isn’t separate from Judaism, it’s not something to get through, get done and get over to give you time you need to serve God. God can/wants to be served through the actions of this world, shaping this world into something better. Only one who knows how to work, who knows what he is capable of achieving knows how to serve. And if you want to hear that expressed better I found as usual while writing this talk, that as usual, whatever I want to say Rav Yosef Soloveitchik has got there first and said it better. There is no dignity without responsibility, and one cannot assume responsibility as long as he is not capable of living up to his commitments. Only when man rises to the heights of freedom of action and creativity of mind does he begin to implement the mandate of dignified responsibility entrusted to him by his Maker. Dignity of man expressing itself in the awareness of being responsible and of being capable of discharging his responsibility cannot be realised as long as he has not gained mastery over his environment. So finally, let’s go back to Piki’in where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son have been sent back to the cave for 12 months, After 12 months a heavenly echo comes forth again and says go forth from your cave, on the eve of Shabbat, before sunset Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son upon leaving the cave see an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight and they ask them what they are for, “they are for Shabbat”, he says, “but won’t one suffice?” and he says, “no. One for shamor and one for zachor, one for remember Shabbat and one for observe the Shabbat.” Says Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to his son, “see how precious are the mitzvoth and the commandments of Israel?” And so their minds were at rest. Sit inside your cave, study Torah and pray to God and when you look at the world you destroy it but get out of the cave, work and use the fruits of your labour to serve God and even the simple man can be as great as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Quite a radical account of what makes for a good Jewish life perhaps. Thank you.


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