I was living in New York, attending school and working. Chatting with a friend, I mentioned that my uncle drove a limousine for a living. “Oy!” she said, clearly shocked by this information. I was puzzled. He and my aunt put two kids through college and graduate school, saved money in the bank every year, and vacationed together. Why the “Oy”? Furthermore, my uncle was smart, funny, and caring. Was driving a limousine so bad?
In “Working,” oral historian Studs Terkel chronicled the life of people in all sorts of careers, from bookbinders to grave-diggers, telephone operators to field hands. What shines through every account is people’s search for “daily meaning as well as daily bread.” A bookbinder declares that she loves her job, even though she doesn’t make much money, and that she thinks of each book as “a life.” A grave-digger shares how a visiting sewer digger was impressed by the neatness of the graves he’d dug. “A human body is goin’ into this grave. That’s why you need skill when you’re gonna dig a grave.”
The Talmud is full of stories of great rabbis and scholars who earned their living through manual labor: wood-choppers, shoe-makers, farmers, grave-diggers, tanners, blacksmiths… In fact, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon say (Nedarim 49b): "Great is labor for it honors the workman." It was their practice to carry bundles on their shoulders, instead of putting them on beasts of burden to show their students that manual labor should be respected.
Perhaps it’s natural that we identify ourselves with our professions; but we shouldn't lose sight of the goal of our work. G-d created us to want to be givers, not just receivers. And that’s a good thing, because whatever we toil in, we come to treasure. And all work, whether snipping torn ligaments or damaged vines, selling silk or tending the sick, improves the world for someone, thereby allowing us to be partners with G-d, not just beneficiaries.