Last week we discussed the immense importance of paying workers on time; there are three distinct Torah commandments which are solely devoted to this requirement.
The Torah explains, “Give him payment the same day, don’t let the sun set on it; for he is poor, and he bears his soul for it” (Devarim 24:15).
While the Rashbam and others explain that “bearing his soul” means that his soul longs for his pay so that he may acquire necessities, Rashi’s understanding is that he risks his life, as many manual employments are quite dangerous. At the very least he deserves to get his pay promptly.
Rebbe Natan of Breslov, basing himself on the teachings of Rav Nachman, points out that most hired work is not really very physically dangerous; and he tries to extend the explanation of Rashi, which is based on a Midrash. One refinement he presents is that the deeper meaning of Rashi’s words relates to the social danger of work, as we explained last week.
However, a more extensive explanation of Rebbe Natan relates to the spiritual danger of work.
Rebbe Natan discusses a concept which is hardly novel – that involvement in the world of work is spiritually hazardous. The worker temporarily abandons the rarefied world of Torah learning and prayer to involve himself in mundane worldly affairs. “This is a great danger, since he descends to the depths of [the world of] action, which is the side of death; and when he descends to there, there is an aspect of the flight of the spirit”.
This refinement of Rashi’s commentary makes sense in itself, but it presents a great difficulty: it doesn’t seem to explain the halakha!
Granted that the worker “risks his life” spiritually for his pay, but how do we solve this problem by prompt payment of salary? Monetary payment is no less mundane or material than the work itself!
Rebbe Natan deals with this issue by explaining that our physical workday labors have immense spiritual significance. He describes at length the great spiritual importance of work. Indeed, the entire section begins, “For all of the labors and the trades are in the aspect of a repair and refinement, for it is specifically the lowly human race that is required to perfect and repair the work of the Creator”.
Rebbe Natan explains in this vein the verse “Six days shall you work and do all your labors, and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to Hashem your G-d”. Just as it is a holy obligation to rest on Shabbat, so is it a holy obligation to work on the six week days, for it is this labor which gives meaning to Shabbat rest.
From the spiritual significance of work Rebbe Natan proceeds to the spiritual significance of compensation. In a remarkable and profound passage, he explains that just as our earthly workday achievements represent spiritual achievements as well, so does our earthly workday reward represent a spiritual reward. “The sparks and good points which the worker refines through his labor are gathered up in the money which he earns through his work.”
The more complete explanation is as follows: the work which each individual performs in perfecting the material world does not come his way arbitrarily. Rather, Divine providence has arranged that the spiritual repair which his particular earthly profession involves is precisely the spiritual improvement which is required for his individual soul. “By the work which he performs, he refines, gathers and accumulates the sparks which are [actually] the dispersed pieces of his own spirit.” However, this spiritual benefit is not completed with the work itself, rather “by virtue of this, he merits the money which he earned, in which all of this benefit is accumulated”. This spiritual repair is completed only when he actually receives the money.
One way of understanding this is by examining our place in the chain of Providence. The Holy One, blessed be He, provides for all of our needs and distributes all of the world’s material blessings. However, human beings take part in this process, at varying levels. An impoverished person has almost no ability to impact this chain of providence. Not only does he have no possessions to distribute; he has little ability even to decide what kind of repair he effects in the material world, since he has to hire himself out to others. Someone with a few possessions has a greater ability. For example, someone with adequate amounts of food can decide to eat it to strengthen himself for G-d’s service or to experience His beneficence; to give it to guests, to feed the poor, etc. And a person who has a trade, even if he is poor, has at least the ability to choose his work, which is itself a powerful impact on the material world.
And of course a person with money is at a much higher level in this chain; money can be exchanged for every kind of material benefit, so its holders have broad freedom of action in influencing the state of the world.
It is a basic principle of a Jewish world view that our spiritual level is intimately connected with our position in the chain of material providence.
For example, one expression of the unique spiritual level of the Land of Israel is that Hashem provides for it directly: “Always are the eyes of Hashem your G-d upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Devarim 11:12). Rashi explains that other lands are provided for by G-d only through the providence of Eretz Yisrael they are lower on the chain of providence. Similarly, the Ramban explains that one expression of the special holiness of the Jewish people is that our providence is supervised directly by Hashem, whereas that of other nations is “delegated” to special “ministers” (Vayikra 18:25).
One consequence of this intimate connection is that someone who attains a high spiritual level through Divine worship, such as prayer or Torah study, thereby attains a powerful influence on the material flow of Providence.
This is the basis for the special power of the prayers of the very righteous, as well as the Gemara’s statement that the entire world is nourished because of Rebbe Chanina ben Dosa, though for Rebbe Chanina himself a small measure of carobs was sufficient to sustain him from Erev Shabbat to Erev Shabbat (Berakhot 17b).
But a person can also ascend the ladder of providence directly, by prudently directing his acts towards fulfilling G-d’s will in the production and distribution of material benefits. From this point of view, the poor worker’s a state of material deprivation limits his freedom to act as Hashem’s emissary in the material repair of the world. He needs to expand and complete his influence by applying himself to some material labor, and elevating himself to a higher rung on the ladder of providence.
By hiring himself out, the worker lowers himself even further in material influence, by subjecting himself to the dictates of the employer. Yet this descent involves a profound ascent; the worker applies himself to improving some aspect of G-d’s creation, and by this very token he improves and completes his own spirit. This process in turn makes him worthy of an elevated level in the chain of providence, from which the spirit will be able to express its newly acquired advantage to shower the world with blessing. However, the worker can only occupy this new level when he receives his pay and thus obtains the ability to provide.
The worker “risks his life” spiritually to obtain his pay, by descending to the level of earthly repair; therefore he deserves to get his pay right away so that he can make this descent into an ascent on the ladder of Providence. – (All quotes from Likutei Halakhot Breslov, Sechirut Poalim 1.)
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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