Avodah: Vocation, Calling, Service

More than just means to make money, our jobs can be one vehicle for setting the world right.

Print this page Print this page

The word for work in Hebrew, avodah, is the same used for prayer. Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings, as set forth in this story about the Hasidic master Rabbi David of Lelov [Poland, 1746-1813]:

"Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki [Poland, 1779-1848] was once traveling with the holy rabbi, David of Lelov, and they came to the town of Elkish at night, at 1:00 am. Rabbi David did not want to wake anyone to ask for a place to sleep, for (as is famous) his love for all Jews was so great [he did not want to wake anyone for his own benefit].

"'So,' the Vorker said, 'we went to Reb Berish's bakery [for he would be awake and at work]. When we arrived there we found him at work, by the oven, and Reb Berish was embarrassed at being found this way [in the midst of such lowly manual labor].

"But the holy Lelover said to him: 'Oh, if only God would let me earn my living by the work of my hands! For the truth is that every one of Israel in their innermost hearts, which even they themselves don't know, wants to do good to their fellow human being. So everyone who works--as a shoemaker or tailor or baker, or whatever, who serves others' needs for money--on the inside they don't do this work in order to make money, but in order to do good to others--even though they do receive money for their troubles; but this is secondary and unimportant, because it is obvious that they have to accept money in order to live.

:But the inner meaning of their work is that they want to do good and show kindness to their fellow human beings'" (G'dulat Mordechai Ugdulat Ha-tzaddikim edited by Mordechai Yitzhak Halevi Stashevski, Warsaw 1933/34, II, 14).

want ad job listingsWork as Tikkun Olam

Though work is our vocation, it has the potential to accomplish tikkun olam, "repair of the world." Every job, every work interaction has value. There are those who believe that each of us is chosen for a particular task to perform in the world.

"Rav Zutra said: What is the meaning of this verse: 'God made everything beautiful in its time' (Ecclesiastes 3:11)? This teaches that the Holy One made everyone's craft appear beautiful in their eyes" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a).

This is reflected in a story told by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin:

"The boss of the moving crew was a delightful, crusty gentleman, a dead ringer for Willie Nelson. I had never met anyone so enthusiastic about his or her work, and I asked him the source of that enthusiasm.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.