Originally, Adam and Chava did not have to toil in Gan Eden for their livelihood. They only had a symbolic responsibility to “work and guard” the Gan (Bereshit 2:15). However, after their sin, HaShem decreed that “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Bereshit 3:19).
This verse is on the one hand a curse, ushering in a new reality whereby man can not provide his basic needs without exertion. But it is also a kind of mandate; the halakha establishes that a person should strive for self-sufficiency, which for most individuals means that they must work for a living.
For instance, the Shulchan Arukh states that after morning seder, a man “should go to work, for Torah without work is destined to be annulled and encourages wrongdoing” (OC 156:1). (Learning and receiving a kollel stipend is also considered work, and someone who supports himself this way can be considered self-sufficient. See Rema YD 246:21.) The Shulchan Arukh also states that “Even a respected Torah scholar who becomes impoverished should engage in a trade, even an undignified one, and not become dependent on others” (YD 255:1).
Ultimately, this verse is also a blessing. The gemara explains that when Adam heard that he had to eat “the growth of the ground” (Bereshit 3:18), he became terrified, thinking that G-d was lowering him to the level of the animals. Adam was relieved when HaShem continued, “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” – if you exert yourself, you will be able to elevate yourself above the level of the animals and acquire human dignity, signified by bread which is a uniquely human food requiring effort and ingenuity to prepare (Pesachim 118a).
The Sefat Emet explains that prior to the sin, man’s service was solely spiritual, like the study of Torah. But after we ate of the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, repair of the physical world became a necessary prerequisite to spiritual advancement. He cites a Midrash which says that the turning sword which guards “the way of the tree of life” – “derekh etz hachaim” (Bereshit 3:24) – teaches us that “derekh eretz precedes Torah” (Vayikra Rabba on Vayikra 7:11).
In other words, we do have a way back to the Gan, to “the Tree of Life”, which is Torah. But since the sin, there is a decree (the sword) which prevents us from getting there without transversing the way, the “derekh”, meaning that we must occupy ourselves as well with the material repair of the world. This is how the Sefat Emet explains the Mishnah (Avot 2:2, cited in the Shulchan Arukh we mentioned before) which tells us that “any Torah which does not have work with it is destined to be annulled” (Sefat Emet Bereshit 5654, 5661).
Ultimately mankind will return to Gan Eden; we will complete the material repair of the world and attain the level where we will be concerned only with spiritual advancement. This itself is hinted at in this same verse, which tells man he must eat bread by the sweat of his brow “until you return” to the earth. The Midrash explains, “until you return” in repentance (Tanchuman Tazria on Vayikra 13:2). Then the decree will be annulled.
But until then, there are no shortcuts. Adam and Chava learned that the way to spiritual perfection cannot take a shortcut around proper moral behavior; by improperly taking the forbidden fruit they immeasurably reversed their spiritual development. Since their error, it is also impossible for mankind as a whole to reach the moral and spiritual levels which are beyond material repair without passing through this level and occupying ourselves, each one according to his circumstances, with the physical preparation of the world through work and toil.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslav taught, “We are obligated to engage in commerce and labor because this is His will. For there are great secrets and meanings in all our occupation with commerce and work. Just as there are great meanings and secrets in all the mitzvot of the Torah, likewise there are awesome and wonderful secrets in all of the thirty-nine [archetypical] labors” (Likutei Halakhot Shabbat III:3).
An often quoted Midrash relates that Chanokh (of whom it is related in Bereshit 5:22 that he “went with God”) was a cobbler. “Chanokh was a sewer of shoes, and on every stitch we would say, Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever” (Mikhlol HaMaamarim VeHaPitgamim gives the source as “Midrash Talpiot”). Someone who is on the spiritual level where he “walks with God” – and who acts with the appropriate concentration and intention – is able to recognize that even sewing shoes can be an expression of God’s sovereignty and a unification of His name.