Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshas Bereshit

What Do You Do?

This happens all the time. You meet someone new, either being introduced to him by someone else, or taking the initiative yourself by saying, “Hi, my name is Tzvi Hersh. What is yours?”

After you exchange names with your new acquaintance, I will wager that the next question you ask is, “What do you do?” He will respond with a description of what he does for a living, and, if you are even minimally polite, you will tell him about your own profession.

It would seem that if we want to get to know a new person, the thing we try to ascertain is how he earns his livelihood. Somehow, we think that defines him. If he turns out to be a physician, the conversation, and the ensuing relationship will proceed in one way. If he turns out to be a plumber, the conversation and relationship will proceed in a different way entirely.

Our professions, our vocations, presumably indicate who we are.

I am not going to call this presumption into question in this brief column, dear reader. I happen to believe that, whereas how we earn our livelihood has a lot to say about who we are, we are really much more than just what we do to earn our daily bread. But I will point out that in this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, the first portion of the new yearly cycle, there are a series of verses which strongly support the notion that a person is very much defined by his occupation.

In Genesis 4:2, for example, we read of the birth of Cain and Abel, and we are immediately told that Abel is a shepherd while Cain tills the soil. We are not told much about their personalities, temperament, dreams, hopes, and wishes; only about what they do for a living.

Later in the same chapter, we learn that Cain had a “career change” and, having been banished from the land because he murdered his brother, abandons agriculture as a career and becomes an urban planner. Thus, in verse 17 we learn that Cain “built a city and named that city after his son Enoch.” But that is only the beginning of the list of individuals who are characterized by their professional occupations. We soon learn of Cain’s descendents several generations later and discover Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain, and here is what we learn about them:

“Jabal was the father of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. The name of his brother was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the lyre and the pipe…Tubal-Cain forged all implements of copper and iron.” (Genesis 4:20-23)

Whereas we know a bit more about Cain than the fact that he started off life as a tiller of the soil, all we really know about Abel is that he was a shepherd; and about Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain, we only know that they were tent dwellers, musicians, and metal smiths. No question about it; the Torah is sending us a message about the importance of one’s vocation.

In preparing to write this column, I surveyed some of the Jewish commentaries written in the 19th century. I felt that the issue of one’s work began to take on a different significance in the context of the technological and industrial revolutions of the 1800s. I hypothesized that even the religious meaning of one’s career would be seen differently by commentators who knew about the changing meaning of work to the person.

I consulted the very different commentaries of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Rabbi Berlin understands Cain’s shift from working the land to building a city as a sign of his spiritual growth. Cain came to recognize that by living agricultural life he was “living an animalistic life,” and that by building a city he was constructing a human environment in which he could better worship God.

For Rav Hirsch, however, Cain’s transition from the field to the city was a move away from God. In the agricultural setting, Rabbi Hirsch saw a set of conditions which enabled man to get closer to God, to be more dependent upon Him, and to recognize Divine Favor. The city, for Rabbi Hirsch, was too human-centered, representing a movement away from God.

What I take away from these passages in this week’s Torah portion, and from these different rabbinical interpretations, is this: a person’s career, occupation, or mode of livelihood is central to his identity, although much more needs to be known about that person in order to determine who he really is.

But, a person’s career is very much related to his religious identity, to his spiritual character. A person’s career can represent a state of alienation from God, or it can be precisely the way in which one serves God.

In our times, some religious teachers actively dissuade their students from pursuing careers which would detract from their Torah study or which would interfere with a life of meticulous Jewish observance.

But there are other religious teachers, and I would hope that I could be numbered among them, who instruct their students quite differently. They tell their students that they can serve God within the context of their careers, and that they could worship Him precisely by being excellent in their professions.

Chassidic Masters would tell the stories of shoemakers who serve God by taking care to create better shoes for their customers. Every stitch sewing the pieces of leather together was a yichud, a way of connecting to the Divine.

This is why the Torah in this week’s portion places such great stress upon the fact that these early human beings were preoccupied with such matters as metal work and inventing musical instruments. Perhaps the lesson is that through one’s vocation one can serve God or act contrary to God. Metals can be used for weapons; they can be used for plowshares. Musical instruments can be used in idol worship or to stimulate warlike emotions, or they can be used for spirituality and inspiration.

Careers and professions are an arena in which Man serves God.