Meaning in Métier

Pekudei Vayak-hel By :  Abigail Treu JTS Alum (Rabbinical School, Kekst Graduate School) Posted On Mar 6, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

Along with many at my stage of life, I have been following with great interest the spate of articles ruminating on work, family, and the formula for living a meaningful life. From US Department of State Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece questioning how working parents can “have it all” to the notes on the anniversary of writer-activist Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; from the deep need for job creation, on the one hand, to the need for the caregiving of children and aging parents on the other; from the book tour for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead to Yahoo President and CEO Marisa Mayer’s controversial decline of her own maternity leave and recent revocation of Yahoo’s telecommuting policy that enabled her staff to work from home, our generation is struggling with work and the broader related question of its place in constructing one’s life. This is, of course, not just a women’s issue: it is a question all of us ask, whether we are job seekers or job holders, career volunteers or paid professionals, full-time caregivers or people trying to juggle many different kinds of work. It is a basic human question because work is—from the expulsion of Eden on—a basic human need.

Slogging through these mostly nonnarrative sections of Torah, we can lose sight of the fact that this question is at the root of our parashiyot. The midrash suggests that the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was given not because God needed such a thing, but to show the world—Israelites included—that the Israelites had been forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. It is curious, though, that such a gesture would be given as a do-it-yourself assignment. After all, if God had wanted to do something to show forgiveness to a people who had just created a golden idol, wouldn’t it have made more sense to simply present them with a completed Mishkan, all ready for use in worshipping the one true God? Why issue instructions, and assign a “project manager” and helpers, if not to teach us something about the value of working toward a goal? Perhaps God had learned something about these humans created in God-the-Creator’s own image: that we are not very good at wandering in deserts, no matter how wonderful the final goal (even freedom in our own land, for example) may be. No, we need something to do; some meaningful work with which to keep our hands busy and our minds and souls fulfilled.

Throughout these parashiyot, the terms khochma and khochmat lev are used to describe who does what. Translated by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) as “skilled” in a particular craft, the resonance of the words are stunning: they mean “wise” and “wise of heart.” There is a hint here: that the work we do—paid or unpaid, because we have to or because we want to—is most fulfilling when it is heartfelt; when it aligns with some natural aptitude and inclination. How frustrating to be an office worker when you yearn to be an actor, and how unfortunate to be an actor when your greatest strength would be as an administrator behind a desk. We can see in this expression a message about “calling”; that we should strive to be like Bezalel, and set to work doing that which we are called to. Or, perhaps, we read it more broadly (after all, we never do hear from Bezalel on how he felt about his being chosen to direct the building of the Tabernacle) and recognize in these words a message: the real fulfilling work of our lives lies in that which we find most gratifying, in that about which we are khochmat lev, be it the volunteer work we do, the time we spend giving to our families, the hobbies we squeeze in or perhaps enjoy only after retirement.

Two verses stand out in our double-portion this week, not only because they give us a brief reprieve of narrative amidst the oh-so-long description of the construction project, but also because they bring to the fore this theme of meaning in métier: “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as the Lord had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them” (Exod. 39:42–43).

Moses seems as surprised as the rest of us that they did it; that the Israelites actually built the Mishkan exactly as commanded by God. And he blesses them for it. How curious that, after so much frustration with the people, a job well done becomes the source of blessing. The job—upon closer read—was the source of blessing perhaps because it involved not just one but two kinds of work: avodah (“work,” as in the JPS translation above) and melacha (tasks). Avodah in modern Hebrew means “work” (it is the name of the Labor party in Israel), and it also means “to serve God” or “to worship God” (as in the Avodah service of Yom Kippur Musaf). But that avodah is complimented here in our verses with melacha, which carries a different spiritual resonance. B. S. Jacobson notes, in his classic Meditations on the Torah (124), “Torah uses this term most frequently in relation to three topics: creation, prohibition of Sabbath work, and the construction of the Tabernacle. They are all distinguished by the creative element in work. Human intelligence and creative capacity reflect the godly part of man.” And so we come to understand that work, which is the source of blessing, involves both kinds of “work”—basic labor, perhaps in service to God in a generalized sense, or perhaps entirely secular, but also something elevated, involving that divine spark of the Creator within each of us.

What was Moses’s blessing? Rashi suggests (following the midrash, and citing Psalms 90:17, which itself claims to be a “Prayer of Moses” in its first verse), “Moses said to them: May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence abide in the work of your hands, ‘And let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us, and may the work our hands be established; prosper it, the work of our hands.’” This indeed is the blessing-prayer that guides each of us as we seek to understand our own answers to the questions of finding meaningful work, attaining work-life balance, juggling care for those we love with the need to earn a living, and satisfying the need—grounding it all—to feel fulfilled through our work.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.