“Oh gosh, it’s Monday again”. These are words that can be best appreciated as a New Yorker. The heavy cycle of work can often be a burden and feel very mandate to us. I cannot forget the time we had over as a Shabbat guest who had been working in a highly prestigious New York firm ninety(!) hours a week, six days a week. That is fifteen hours a day. The thirst with which he drank up every moment of holiness of the Shabbat table was inspiring. It felt like, to him, this was the polar opposite of what he was doing during the week. In this week’s Parasha, we meet the man with the worst job in the world: Jacob. And yet, Jacob teaches us a powerful lesson: the sanctity of work.
Why is Jacob, the man with the worst job in the world? Because he works for Laban, who keeps on cheating him again and again. Most famously, Laban cheated Jacob when having Jacob work for seven years so he can marry Rachel and then giving him Leah as a wife so that Jacob can work an additional seven years for Rachel. This was not the only time Laban cheats Jacob. There’s more.
Laban cheats Jacob so much, Jacob needs to take his salary in the most verifiable way, asking for the spotted and speckled sheep. What happens after that?
“And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from what belonged to our father, he has amassed this entire fortune.” (Genesis 31)
The pathology of Laban’s cheating is so prolific that he actually believes Jacob is the one cheating him. One would think that when working for a swindler as deceptive as Laban, Jacob would be inclined to be dishonest. To get what was swindled away from you and what belongs to you. That is not the case with Jacob. Jacob calls Rachel and Leah and tells them”
“I see your father’s countenance, that he is not disposed toward me [as he was] yesterday and the day before, but the God of my father was with me. And you know that with all my might I served your father. But your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.”
Jacob kept the highest levels of honesty, even when working for the most corrupt person in Biblical record. Maimonides takes note of this and explains why it is that the Torah takes so much time to elaborate on all the workplace conflicts between Laban and Jacob. He writes:
“Just as the employer is warned not to steal the wage of the poor person or to withhold it from him, the poor person is forewarned not to steal from the work due his employer and neglect his work slightly here and there, spending the entire day in deceit.
Instead, he is obligated to be precise concerning his time. The importance of such preciseness is indicated by our Sages’ ruling that workers should not recite the fourth blessing of grace, so as not to neglect their work.
Similarly, a worker is obligated to work with all his strength, for Jacob the righteous man said Genesis 31:7: “I served your father with all my strength.” Therefore, he will be granted a reward even in this world, as indicated by ibid. 30:43: “And the man became prodigiously wealthy.” (Rambam, Yad Hachazakah hilchot sechirut chapter 13:17)
The story Jacob and Laban is to share with us a powerful work ethic lesson, one that covers most of the time of our lives: honest work is a virtue. Even when working for a world-class cheater like Laban, we must give it our most.
Later on in the Parasha, when Jacob leaves Laban’s house with no notice, Laban furiously pursues Jacob, accusing him of stealing his belongings. After Laban searched all of Jacob’s belongings, Laban could not find even one needle that belonged to him. Who can say after living with their in-laws for more than a decade they don’t have one item they took from their in-laws?! Jacob was able to. And so he responds to Laban with very sharp words:
“And Jacob was annoyed, and he quarreled with Laban, and he said to Laban, “What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me? For you have felt about all my things. What have you found of all the utensils of your house? Put it here, in the presence of my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us.”
Had Jacob stopped here by showing his extraordinary honesty—dayenu—that would be enough. But he doesn’t. Jacob continues:
“Already twenty years have I been with you, and your ewes and she goats have not aborted, neither have I eaten the rams of your flocks. I have not brought home to you anything torn [by other animals]; I would suffer its loss; from my hand you would demand it, what was stolen by day and what was stolen at night. I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes. This is twenty years that I have spent in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your animals, and you changed my wages ten times. Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been for me, you would now have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved [you] last night.”
Despite being finessed time and time again, despite having been bamboozled by Laban, Jacob was able to say with full confidence: “I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes”. The lesson? Work takes on a whole new level of value when we are employed when we are paid for our work.
The famous words of Martin Luther King Junior come to mind:” Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is rarely easy. The rabbis state in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) that when a person comes to their day of Judgment, the first question we will be asked is “did you deal faithfully with others on monetary issues?”. The obligation to give our most to our work is a deep reflection of our integrity and care for others’ resources. When we give work our most—within the realm that we are bound to while not neglecting other obligations—we show our faith in the integrity, conscientiousness, and a higher force that is watching us. This is not to say we should overlook our obligation to family, Torah study, or communal needs; it is to say that within what we are expected to do, we must give it our most.
The lesson of Jacob is the lesson of honesty. It is the lesson that the mundane can take on a sacred realm if we enshrine honesty, integrity, and truthfulness in that work. No matter if working with sheep, or with deep spiritual issues, we must give it our most. Sometimes it may be difficult, not all Mondays will be fun, yet it is only then that the legacy of Jacob and the sanctity of honesty will dwell with us.