Le-ovdah—The Work Ethic

The sense of duty I mentioned above with regard to “le-shomrah” applies likewise to the first component of Adam’s mandate—“ le-ovdah.” It is not enough to guard; one needs also to develop and to create. Let us be mindful that this applied even in what seemingly had been a perfect world! “And God saw all that He had made and found it very good” (Bereishit 1:31). If all is wonderful and perfect, what need is there for “le-ovdah?” There are two possible answers. Although the difference between them is of great significance in many areas, I would prefer not to focus on the clash between them, but rather to see them both as being correct.

The first answer is that, indeed, the world was created perfect— but part of that perfection, and one of the components within that order, is human activity. Part of “And He found it very good” is man, not existing simply as a biological being enjoying the world, but rather as a functional being who con- tributes, creates and works. The need for man to work is not part of the curse subsequent to the sin; man was originally placed in the Garden in order to cultivate it. The curse was that man would have to battle with an unwilling earth: “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. . . . By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Bereishit 3:18-19). But the fact that one needs to work at all is part of the primeval, primordial order, irrespective of any element of sin. This had been intended from the beginning. Simply put, this is indeed a perfect order, provided that man does his part. If man does not, then one of the pieces of the picture has fallen out, and the world is no longer perfect.

According to this approach, both “le-ovdah” and “le-shomrah” are designed to maintain the world at its present level, and this entails two components: passively guarding against damage and actively working in order to replenish. We need to work so that the natural processes repeat themselves; if you do not contribute your share, the seasons come and go, but nature does not replenish itself.

The second approach assumes that “le-ovdah” is a mandate to go beyond the original state of creation. “Le-ovdah” is not meant simply to maintain the original standard; rather, we have been given the right and the duty to try to transcend it. While the former approach asserts that man was asked to maintain the world as God had created it, this answer claims that man was empowered and enjoined to create something better, as it were.

Although this approach is audacious, we find it advanced by Chazal in several places. Perhaps the most celebrated is the midrash (Tanchuma, Parashat Tazria) which speaks of the encounter between the Roman governor Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God wanted man to be circumcised, then why did He not create him that way?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “Bring me some wheat.” Then he said, “Bring me a loaf of bread.” He asked, “Which do you prefer to eat, the bread or the wheat?” “Naturally, the bread,” Turnus Rufus replied. Rabbi Akiva retorted, “Do you not see now that the works of flesh and blood are more pleasant than those of God?” There is a certain audacity here, but these are the words of Rabbi Akiva! What you have here is an assertion of human ability and grandeur, and of human responsibility to engage in this kind of improvement.

The extent to which this particular view is accepted depends on whether one adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, a humanistic perspective. Humanists talk a great deal about man placing his imprint upon the world, improving it, building it, and so on. When I say humanists, I am not talking only about secular humanists; I mean religious humanists within our world as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, for example, talk a great deal about the need for man to create.

Historically, this debate has found expression in some very strange contexts. In late seventeenth-century England, there was a vigorous debate about the hills and valleys. Some assumed that in the Newtonian world of mathematical precision, a perfect world presumably would be perfectly shaped. How, then, to explain the indentations of hills and valleys which seem to mar what should be a perfectly round globe? People with a more Romantic perspective said that it’s nicer this way, with some variety; who would want the whole world to be as flat as the New Jersey Turnpike? Others gave a more theological interpretation: really, a perfect world would be a perfect globe without any ups and downs, but God made the mountains and the valleys so that man should have the challenge of flattening everything. To us, this debate seems curious, but the basic notion is clear.

The debate about the role of art similarly reflects these two basic positions about man’s relation to the world. Plato claimed that artists misrepresent reality. He believed that the ultimate reality is the world of ideas, of which our world is just a kind of reflection or image. Now, says Plato, what does the poet or the artist do? He has the image of the image, and is now two steps removed from reality, instead of being one step away. So he banished all of them from his ideal republic. One response was given to this by Plotinus. The best known statement of this response in English is Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy,” an essay written in the late sixteenth century. Sidney says that Plato’s perception is wrong: the poet does not imitate nature, he goes beyond nature. The natural world, he says, is brass, but the poet’s world is gold.



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