Israel Drazin

Henry David Thoreau’s mistake

Henry David Thoreau advised people not to work.

The Decalogue, commonly mistakenly called Ten Commandments, a title not in the Bible, is called Ten Statements in the Bible. This is the meaning of the word Decalogue. The title Ten Commandments is wrong because the Decalogue contains more than ten commands. Exodus 20:9 and 10 states. “You should work six days and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbat for God.”

Like the other sentences in the Decalogue, both sentences are obscure and need rabbinic interpretations.

Does verse 9 insist that people should work for six days, or does it only permit people to work?

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862, who died at age 44) disagreed with both possible interpretations. He argued in his book “Life Without Principle” that work is trivial and meaningless. The purpose of life, he believed, is not to work but to connect with nature and the universe. This connection, he argued, is of utmost importance, far more significant than any work. He advocated for a simpler, self-reliant lifestyle, where people spend time teaching themselves to rely only on themselves and not others.

He wrote, “Simplify, simplify.” He claimed that people go through life exhausted because they take on too many tasks. They bring unnecessary complexity to their lives and do not enjoy it. He advised reducing material possessions, living in nature, enjoying its beauty, and removing distractions. Less is more.

I disagree.

Maimonides (1138-1204) addressed the question, why does the Torah tell us that God tested people? First, he said in his Guide for the Perplexed 2:48 that when the Torah states God did something, it means it happened according to the laws of nature that God created or formed. Second, in 3:24, he explains that the “tests” are natural difficulties people must face and overcome to learn how to improve themselves, society, and the world. If something is easy, it is not only wrong; it wastes an opportunity to face difficulty, learn from it, and improve.

As indicated in Genesis 1:28, humans have been placed on earth to work from the very beginning of time.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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