For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at February 2006, 2008 and 2009.
“Great Is Labor”
I have much to say a bit later on certain recent events, so I will present here only one short thought related to the parasha—a brief passage from Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 11:
They taught: R. Tarfon said: Great is labor, for even the Holy one blessed be He did not imbue his Indwelling Presence upon Israel until they engaged in labor; as is said, “And they shall make Me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them” (Exod 25:8).
Avot de-Rabbi Nathan is a singular work. It might best be described as a midrash on Pirkei Avot, but then it is the only Rabbinic work which is structured as a midrashic commentary on another Rabbinic work—namely, the popular treatise known as Avot, which contains miscellaneous dicta of the various generations of Sages. (On the other hand, it is customarily grouped with the so-called “minor tractates,” being printed together with such non-canonical works as Masekehtot Sofrim, Semahot, & Kallah in the Avodah Zarah / Horayot / Eduyot volume of the Vilna Shas). On each mishnah, Abot de-Rabbi Nathan presents a series of other Rabbinic sayings on the same general theme. Thus, the above saying is part of its elaboration of the saying of Shemaya in Avot 1.10: אהוב את המלאכה ושנא את הרבמות: “Love labor and hate [being in position of] authority [over others]”—in other words, extolling what is today called the “old fashioned” virtue of a person doing an honest day’s work. In a world in which the greatest financial rewards, prestige, and admiration seem to go to “management,” CEO’s, entertainment and sport celebrities, and investors of various kinfs, this sentiment sounds almost quaint, if not archaic.
The basic idea here is a very simple, but interesting one: the commandment to build a Sanctuary to serve as Gods’ “dwelling place” on earth—first in the wilderness, and later in the form of the Temple in Jerusalem—implies engaging in labor: building, preparing wood and stone, weaving various types of cloth for the coverings and partitions, making utensils of gold, silver and brass, cutting and setting precious stones: in short, both the skilled work of artisans, as well as the gross physical labor of simple workmen in carrying and setting things up, etc. As this labor is a precondition for God’s Presence being able to dwell on earth, physical labor as such—concrete, down-to-earth, human effort—is a value in itself.
In addition to the devaluation of labor in our contemporary culture, with the exception of certain prestigious professions, we live in an era n which, for large parts of the Jewish religious world, study of Torah is not only the supreme value, but the only religious value of any importance. Often, a dichotomy is drawn between the “spiritual” and “material” aspects of life, the latter being viewed as no more than a necessary evil, to be avoided if possible and reduced to the absolute minimum. (There is, indeed, a position among Hazal that supports this view; see the dispute between R, Shimon and R. Ishmael in Berakhot 35b as to whether Torah should be combined with worldly occupations or note; we have discussed this in the past: see HY VII: Iyyar [=Months]; VIII: Pinhas [=Rashi]). This saying of R. Tarfon, along with others of similar import, articulates another view: that davka the Temple—the most “spiritual,” sublime area of religious life, the creation of holiness in space, in place—requires labor to exist, and thus labor as such is a sacred value.