Thursday, August 28, 2008

Musings on Labor Day

I never understood the concept behind Labor Day. It is a day honoring labor, and yet we celebrate it by resting? Shouldn't we have rather celebrated it by working overtime? (I hope my boss is not reading this ;-) Well, I for one, am NOT celebrating labor. In fact, I am absolutely dreading going back to work Tues. morning. Perhaps we ought to rename it "Un-Labor Day," or better yet, "Down-with-labor Day!"

Perhaps there is a deeper lesson here. "For man was born to toil," declared Job (no pun intended. The name is "Iyov." "Job" is an unprecise anglicization.)

But what kind of toil? The toil of the workplace? The toil to eke out a living? No, states the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99). That's not the toil that Job was refering to. Instead, he was refering to the "toil of Torah." From a Chassidic persective, this means exerting effort to rise to the spiritual challenges we all face from within and without, the struggle to refine and develop our character and the world around us, to transcend all obstacles and reveal the G-dliness inherent in everyone and everything.

Indeed, this is no simple task. It is HARD WORK. This is the toil for which we were created.

Shabbat epitomizes this concept.

Our Sages taught that when the Torah prohibits "work" on Shabbat, it refers to the so-called "Principal Labors." The Mishna (Tractate Shabbat) states: "The Principal Labors are forty missing one," and then proceeds to delineate them: "Sowing, plowing, harvesting..."

Firstly, why couldn't the Mishna have said simply "thirty-nine?"
Moreover, the fact that the Mishna deemed it necessary to point out the number altogether (even though any student of the Mishna would presumably know how to count) implies that there is something significant in this number. And the fact that it says "forty minus one" instead of "thirty-nine" implies that the only reason 39 is significant is because it is one less than forty. If number forty is so significant, shouldn't there have been a full forty principal labors? Why did it need to be "missing one?"

Chassidus explains:
There are thirty-nine labors that we perform six days a week. However, we need to be conscious of the fact that these labors in and of themselves are "missing." Indeed, our toil in this world as an end in itself is deficient. The "one" labor that is missing is the "Melechet Shamayim" -- man's service of his Creator. There is a void, an emptiness that lies within the work, that needs to be filled with spiritual meaning. It is not easy to fill the void with meaning. Sometimes, this is tough, really tough. This is also known as the "toil of Torah." This "one labor" cannot necessarily be performed while you are in the midst of buying and selling, sowing or plowing. That's why it's forty minus one. But in the midst of all your material pursuits and effort, you gotta be aware that you're minus one, and that at some point during the day or week, you will complete the forty by performing the fortieth labor, one's service of G-d.

Herein lies a powerful insight into Shabbat observance. Shabbat is the day devoted to the "one" that was missing all week. On Shabbat, we rest from the mundane, but don't just sit passively all day. Instead, we exert effort into the areas that matter most in life: our relationship with G-d, with our loved ones, with our community and with our people. Prayer, meditation, Torah study, etc... going out of our comfort zone and into the transcendance of Shabbat.

Yes, Shabbat is a day of rest, but also a day of toil, the real toil for which we were created.

When I think of "Labor Day" and the peculiar disparity between what it celebrates and how it is observed, I am reminded of the dual nature of Shabbat, rest and toil

Perhaps Labor Day reminds us that there is more to work than work itself. That work is only meaningful if we can take a break from it and exert effort in the spiritual realm.

Oh well, enough said. Time to get back to work...

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