Be a Jew in the Workplace

Challenges at Work

Recently, I received the following letter: “Rabbi, Shalom and blessings. My name is …and I live in… I am 33 years old, married with children. I have a Master’s degree in Economics and Accounting, and for a few months now I have been unemployed. Every week I read your extremely sensible articles in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper. Thank you for your enriching and erudite commentaries. That’s why I am turning to you, Rabbi, with an issue that is bothering me a lot.

As a religious woman who was brought-up and educated in ‘ulpana’ [woman’s seminary], I was imbued with the values of generosity, placing trust in people, gratitude, seeing the good in things, the significance of happiness, and many other important and suitable values. I was totally unprepared for my encounter with the secular world! My first shock was when I went to …University. There, I met a world foreign to me – cold and alienated, hardened to values of achievement, competition, and detachedness. So very different from the “incubator” I was brought-up in. Because of my good marks I was able to endure an atmosphere that was extremely difficult for me to cope with. Today, with the establishment of various, new colleges, there’s no need to learn in a non-religious university anymore. Nowadays, the “religious world” shelters its graduates during the academic stage of life as well.

The second and more important shock came when I went out to the work market. There, I met the language of the secular, Tel Aviv crowd, whose values are so different from what I was raised and educated on – and I asked myself: “Where can I turn to now?” A good portion of the “gear” in my “toolbox” had become impractical. I was forced to obtain a new “toolbox”, which, till this day, is still lacking.

It’s important for me to emphasize – I have no complaints against the “religious world” and its teachers. The goal of this letter is to raise a painful issue without blaming anyone, in the hopes that you, Rabbi, will take it into consideration, and perhaps, view it as important enough to deal with. From my numerous discussions with friends and associates it seems that every one of them has to cope with a lot of ‘politics’ at work – and it’s not easy.

That being the case, my question is: How should a religious, God-fearing person whose honesty and good character traits are being shamefully exploited, behave? The majority of people I have spoken to about this problem say: “Be a human-being at home, and a wolf at work”, or, “Be religious at home, and a Tel-Avivian at work.” Sometimes these people, for lack of any other option, behave contrary to their genuine personality and character traits because of Biblical sayings such as “with the perverse show yourself subtle”, etc.

What hurts most is that sometimes two religious people meet at work and treat each other according to the destructive code of behavior of their workplace. It’s really painful to see how religious people outside of the ‘incubator’ forget how to behave, and in the cloak of pursuit of a livelihood act so disgustingly.

My request, Rabbi, is if you could explain in detail the value of work and how one should act at there (especially when dealing with unethical and immoral people), in a way we can understand and put into practice, so that people like us can enjoy the fruits of their religious up-bringing. Unfortunately, answers’ encouraging further improvement of one’s character traits does not fit in here, because that just worsens the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness when situated opposite a secular society which speaks a different language and doesn’t understand or value modesty, concessions, and pure generosity, without expecting something in return. Thank you and blessings.

The Torah of Work Ethics

Indeed, this is a very important subject that cannot be answered fully in one article. Nevertheless, I will attempt to present a number of principles.

Judaism’s grand ideal is that the morals of the Torah should guide our path – “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths”. Precisely because of our running into difficulties and coping with them, we merit revealing profound and important ideas, thereby elevating and improving the world.

As a result of the sin of Adam, we are forced to work hard for our livelihood, as God decreed upon him: “The ground will therefore be cursed because of you. You will derive food from it with anguish all the days of your life. It will bring forth thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread. Finally, you will return to the ground, for it was from [the ground] that you were taken. You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). The need to work is existential – for food, clothing, and shelter – and thus, man faces a world of ruthless competition. Our challenge is to imbue labor with moral values and content, and precisely in this manner, to improve it, thereby bringing the world closer to redemption – until this world returns to being like the Garden of Eden. Therefore, the virtue of a person who merits’ being ethical in his work is enormous and the ‘tikun’ (improvement) which he makes cannot be achieved even by all the righteous people learning Torah in the study halls.

Lazy? Don’t Blame Religion!

One must be careful not to use moral or religious arguments as an excuse for negligence at work, a breach of an agreement, or for being late. For example: “Sorry I’m late, prayers were long today”, or “I had to help my wife – ‘shalom bayit’ (domestic peace), you know…” Or, an employee, who, according to his out-put, doesn’t deserve a higher salary than his co-workers, cannot claim that his religious boss should give him a bonus because he’s got to pay more for his kids Talmud Torah education, and buy food with special ‘kashrut’ supervision.

It’s not fair to make such claims, and it’s also annoying, because it is very difficult for an employer to contend with someone who enlists God and His Torah in every argument. This is not the way of the Torah, for indeed, we have seen how the Sages, in times of need, were lenient in shortening a worker’s prayer and reciting of ‘Birkat Hamazone’ (blessing after meals) so as not to waste the time of one’s employer (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 73:7-8; 191:1-2).

Add Blessing to the World

The basic value of work is to add blessing to the world. Just as our forefather Yaacov shepherded the flocks of Lavan’s sheep with tremendous devotion. He had a thousand excuses to be negligent, for Lavan was a swindler. However, Yaacov saw value in labor – so that the world has more wool for clothing to be made, more meat to be consumed, and more goat milk to be drunk. Therefore, he worked devotedly for twenty years. He made sure the animals were healthy; he was not deterred by the summer heat or the winter cold, night and day, guarding and taking care of them. The wicked Lavan thought that in the end he would kill Yaacov and inherit all his great wealth, but God protected Yaacov. About this, the Sages said something wonderful (Breishit Rabba 74:12): “Labor is more cherished than ‘zechut Avot’ (merit of the forefather’s), for in the merit of Yaacov’s diligence in work, God saved his life, and in the merit of his father’s Avraham and Yitzchak, God saved his possessions”. The very essence of Yaacov’s existence was granted in the merit of his hard work, while all the other merits help to enhance and improve life.

Integrity, Not False Modesty

Indeed, sometimes educators over-emphasize the value of being modest, claiming that the character trait of humility obligates it. Such education is liable to harm one’s ability to integrate into a job where one must cope with unfamiliar surroundings that place a strong emphasis on achievement and competition. Besides this, education towards being modest usually ends up a bit distorted.

The essence of modesty is knowing that everything is from God – one’s talents, genealogy, good looks, and strength – and one is obligated to use these talents to benefit the world. If so, a person’s acknowledgment of his true talents is not egotistic at all. On the contrary, many times modesty covers-up for pathological egotism. Sometimes, a person with average talents prefers to think to himself: “Don’t be conceited; don’t think you’re the most qualified. True, you do deserve the main role, but it’s better to give-in”. In reality, this type of modesty is both arrogance and a lie, for in truth, not only does he lack talent, but he’s also not suitable for the main role; there’s no need for egotism to realize this. Such false modesty only causes him sharp bitterness towards his co-workers and bosses. The first stipulation of true modesty is integrity – not to exaggerate, nor diminish, one’s worth.

Don’t Be a Chump

The ideal is for one to want to work, so as to add blessing in the world; the compensation he receives is merely an extra. True, it is forbidden to be a ‘friar’ (chump), for ‘friars’ encourage evil people to exploit their friends. Someone who knows that his work is worth more than he’s getting paid should look for another job. He doesn’t have to punish himself over it and quit immediately, rather, he should continue working faithfully, and quit when he finds a better job. Once again, there are those who fool themselves into thinking that they really do deserve more. Therefore, it’s worthwhile for them to search out a new job that pays more. If they don’t find one, apparently their work is worth less than they thought.

A Harmful Workplace

Indeed, some workplaces are extremely competitive, negative, and ethically problematical. Anything is permitted in order to get more money out of their clients. The desire to advance in salary and status overshadows family values, the obligation to speak the truth, and the mitzvah to help one’s fellow man. Someone who doesn’t fit-in with all the intrigues isn’t respected, and other people will take credit for his good deeds. One should not work in such places. If possible, it’s preferable to explain the reason for resigning, but in any case, it’s advisable to quit.

In order not to be dependent on such a workplace, everyone should try to accumulate savings, allowing one to uphold his principles, and not have to accept any job offered him. In the meantime, until one finds a suitable job, he can upgrade his professional level, in order to be better at his job.

Friends Help Friends

Moral people who have faith in the values of the Torah and realize the importance of work should be considerate and help each other out. This will also serve to improve the labor market. Jews all over the world helped each other out, maintained a high level of credibility, and contributed to the economic prosperity of the world invaluably. What flourished in the Diaspora can be immeasurably successful here in the Land of Israel, where all the different types of work progressively become more spiritually purified and connected to the loftiest ideals.