Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Value of Physical Work, part 2

In my last post, I described the powerful feeling of successfully completing a physical, tangible task; the emotional (and even spiritual) pleasure of seeing the "fruit of one's labor". In truth, I have felt certain affinity for this topic for a long while, especially considering the fact that a large portion of the Jewish community disdains physical work, and considers work at the very most, a concession to fulfill our physical needs, but basically a waste of time. (I'll probably write more about this later.)
But the impetus for this post was this article in the New York Times magazine, which I read with a great sense of identification. The author writes about how he eschewed his PhD job in a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop, and how he finds the latter far more intellectually challenging and fulfilling than the former. I would like to show how I believe that the Torah addresses this issue specifically.
At the beginning of Bereishit, we learn that after creating Adam, God places him in the Garden of Eden. But he doesn't just put him there to play Nintendo. Rather, God situates man in the Garden for a reason.
וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. (Bereishit 2:15)
Don't just read the translation. I pulled it from a website to make my life easy. In truth, translating this verse raises serious questions, not the least of which is, What does it mean to "dress" a land? I have no idea. But the verse raises other questions, both linguistic and contextual:
1. Looking carefully at the last two words, they end in the feminine form: לעבדה ולשמרה - which I would translate as "to work it and to guard it." But the "it" here clearly refers to a feminine form. Otherwise the verse would have said לעבדו ולשמרו - in the male form. The problem here is that the word גן is a "male" word, so it's difficult to explain that the verbs modify the noun גן - garden. The problem then becomes, what did God place man in the garden to "work and guard" if not the garden itself?
2. The verse itself raises another question: what exactly is man supposed to do in this garden? Looking back at the previous six verses, we learn about how God had planted the garden, watered it, pretty much made it the best darn garden ever in history. Adam could eat whatever and as much as he wanted (other than that darn tree!) If God's your gardener, what's there left for Adam to do other than lounge around?
Because of these two issues, many commentators interpret this verse allegorically. Seforno, commenting on the word לעבדה - "to work it," explains simply, "לעבוד את נשמת חיים" - "to work on the soul of life." God placed man in His garden not to weed and prune the grass, but to weed and prune his soul; to improve himself and become more spiritual, ethical and moral.
Pirkei D'rabbi Eliezer states,
ומה עבודה היתה בגן, שאמר לעבדה ולשמרה - והלא כל האילנות נצמחות מאליהן? אלא לעסוק בדברי תורה ולשמור את דרך עץ החיים, ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה"
What "work" was there in the garden, that God told him to "work it and to guard it" - for did not all the trees grow on their own? Rather, [the instruction refers to a commandment] to immerse in the words of Torah and to guard the ways of the "tree of life," for the tree of life refers to the Torah as it is written, "It is a tree of life to those who grab hold of it." (Mishlei 3:18)
Both of these commentators - and many more - interpret the work in the garden as spiritual, and not physical work. Their theory is strengthened by the curse God gives to Adam after he eats the forbidden fruit, בזעת אפיך תאכל לחם - "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." After the sin and the curse, Adam needed to work to eat, implying that beforehand, he did not.
And yet these interpretations leave me wondering: why then did God give Adam a physical form? The garden seems to have been an actual, real place. If Adam's entire goal was spiritual perfection, why put him in a physical place? Why give him a body at all? Why write that God put Adam in the garden for "work" which seemingly implies physical toil? And finally - and perhaps most perplexingly - God never gave Adam the Torah. How was he supposed to grab hold of the Torah and keep the commandments that he never received?
Add to this the following Midrash:
תניא: רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר, גדולה מלאכה שאף אדם הראשון לא טעם כלום עד שעשה מלאכה, שנאמר "וינחהו בגן עדן לעבדה ולשמרה" והדר "מכל עץ הגן תאכל"
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: great is [the value of] work, for even original man did not taste a morsel until he performed some work as it is written, "and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it" and only then it says, "From every tree in the garden you may eat." (Avot D'rabbi Natan 11)
On this Midrash Torah Temimah comments,
This is an allusion to the inhabitants of the world that it is unworthy to benefit from the world without bringing any benefit and pleasure to the world's population and its existence. For the world from its perspective gives benefit to man. Therefore it is appropriate from man's side to benefit the world.
According to Torah Temimah, we should not and cannot just be takers. We must also contribute in some way to the growth, development and completion of the world.
But to me it's more than that. It seems to me that in some way, God hard-wired into us the need to not only grow and develop spiritually and emotionally, but physically as well. By giving us a physical form and strengths and capabilities, God told us in a sense: Here's my garden. Here's the world. Let's see what you can do with it.
Living in a yishuv in Israel, I often find myself marveling at the fields as they grow and develop. The natural world has a great physical beauty when left untouched by human hands. But those rows of fields; or the clean, shining, golden stalks of wheat, swaying ever so softly in the wind - they have a different and perhaps no less stark beauty. The beauty of man's toil; the beauty of man "working and guarding" the garden.