Shabbat Message: Work and Dignity

Friday, October 8, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

Does the Torah support guaranteed work? While it is hard to answer affirmatively to this question, what is clear is that work is valued in the Torah as a source of dignity. As such, we should build a society that provides work for all those who are willing to work.

וַתָּבֹ֨א אֵלָ֤יו הַיּוֹנָה֙ לְעֵ֣ת עֶ֔רֶב וְהִנֵּ֥ה עֲלֵה־זַ֖יִת טָרָ֣ף בְּפִ֑יהָ וַיֵּ֣דַע נֹ֔חַ כִּי־קַ֥לּוּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.” (Gen. 8:11)

After Noah sends out the dove for the second time, it returns to the ark with an olive leaf. This signals to Noah that “the waters had decreased on the earth.”

The rabbis are intrigued as to why the Torah needs to spell out that the dove brought back an olive leaf. After all, any form of vegetation would have indicated to Noah that the flood waters were abating. TheTalmud (Eruvin 18b, Sanhedrin 108b) imagines an startling conversation between Noah and the dove (this is not the only conversation between Noah and the animals he cared for - see Midrash Rabbah Bereoshit 33:5).

The dove said: “The dove said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, let my food be bitter as an olive but given into Your hand, and let it not be sweet as honey but dependent upon flesh and blood.”

This statement of the dove raises a question. Why would the dove react this way considering that Noah had cared for it for a full year while they were in the ark. It seems like a lack of gratitude.

Rabbi Yaakov Even Naim, in his Torah commentary Mishkenot Yaakov, powerfully suggests that the dove was concerned that Noah would think that she returned to the Ark, not because the water had not receded, but because it was so comfortable and easy to live in Ark since Noah was taking care of everything.

By bringing back the olive leaf, the dove is hinting to Noah that she would prefer to support herself by her own work efforts, rather than rely on Noah, even if it meant eating bitter foods like the olive leaf.

I was so moved by this interpretation as it focused my attention on the importance of self sufficiency as an element of human dignity. It also reminded me that while Tzedakah is a noble act and a great Mitzvah, it may sometimes lead to diminished sense of dignity on the part of the recipient. Maybe this is why the idea of universal work is popular.

The importance of providing those who want to and are able to with dignified work as an antidote to shame, is noted in the Talmud (Shabbat 63a, with Rashi) and codified by Rambam (Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14).

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ: גָּדוֹל הַמַּלְוֶה יוֹתֵר מִן הָעוֹשֶׂה צְדָקָה...

Rabbi Abba said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: One who loans another money is greater than one who gives him charity…

Rashi explains, לפי שאין העני בוש בדבר, since the poor are not shamed thereby.

Here is Maimonides’ ruling:

שְׁמוֹנֶה מַעֲלוֹת יֵשׁ בַּצְּדָקָה זוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִזּוֹ. מַעֲלָה גְּדוֹלָה שֶׁאֵין לְמַעְלָה מִמֶּנָּה זֶה הַמַּחֲזִיק בְּיַד יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁמָּךְ וְנוֹתֵן לוֹ מַתָּנָה אוֹ הַלְוָאָה אוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עִמּוֹ שֻׁתָּפוּת אוֹ מַמְצִיא לוֹ מְלָאכָה כְּדֵי לְחַזֵּק אֶת יָדוֹ עַד שֶׁלֹּא יִצְטָרֵךְ לַבְּרִיּוֹת לִשְׁאל. וְעַל זֶה נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא כה לה) "וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ" כְּלוֹמַר הַחֲזֵק בּוֹ עַד שֶׁלֹּא יִפּל וְיִצְטָרֵךְ:

There are eight levels of tzedakah, each one greater than the other. The greatest level, higher than all the rest, is to fortify a fellow Jew and give him a gift, a loan, form with him a partnership, or find work for him, until he is strong enough so that he does not need to ask others [for sustenance]. Of this it is said, (Lev. 25:35) [If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority,] and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side. That is as if to say, "Hold him up," so that he will not fall and be in need.

It turns out that the highest form of Tzedakah is not Tzedakah at all!

Note that Rambam’s proof text is Vayikra 25:35 which is understood by Rashi to mean:

“You should grab hold of him: Do not allow him to go down and fall, for then it will be hard to pick him up. Instead, grab hold of him the moment he falters…”

This is not only a practical argument; this speaks to dignity. Helping recently unemployed individuals find work preserves their dignity, waiting until they are jobless and or homeless and then offering aid, does not While work is important, dignified working conditions are important as well. People want to be treated well and have a sense of purpose in their work. The Talmud (Eruvin 100b) teaches that even if the Torah had not been given, we would learn certain ethical teachings from animals (i.e., we would learn not to steal from ants who do not steal grain from other ants).

Perhaps we can add learning about the importance of dignified work from the dove. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Gelman

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.  

Category: ERJCC Blog