Long ago we were introduced to Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples. Since then we have learned from each of these Rabbis countless things–we’ve learned about community, about perception about prayers and obligations, about goodness and evil. Today, our lessons from these wise men come to an end as we study their final lesson to all us.
2.19 Rabbi Elazar taught:
Be diligent in the study of Torah;
Be armed with knowledge to refute a heretic;
Be aware for Whom you labor and that your Employer can be relied upon to reward your labors.
The interesting thing of all of this is that since I began studying the words of these six Rabbis more than two months ago, I was in a completely difference place in life. Since the semester began, I’ve been learning about statistics, world religions, and American politics, and my burgeoning wealth of knowledge in these areas has already changed the way I think and the way I see the world around me. I can almost guarantee that if I were to begin these texts now where I began then, I’d come to different conclusions on each of them. But there is no looking back in my philosophy, only looking forward, and that brings us to where I’d like to begin today.
When I was much younger, I regularly attended Hebrew school three days a week. Budgets were bigger then, or at least didn’t need to go as far as they do now, and my synagogue had the funds necessary for this; now we only meet twice a week, and although the students may not realize this, I can see how much a difference one day can make. After all, if the school year goes for eight months, an extra day each week amounts to an additional four months of class time meeting twice weekly.
How much difference one day can make….
My point in mentioning this is that I attended Hebrew school religiously (pun intended). I loved being able to learn new things, I loved being able to meet with my friends, and I loved being somewhere where I was comfortable doing both of these things.
And even without formal homework assignments, even without formal grades, one thing my teachers always said to me was that I was diligent. I don’t even think I knew the word before they’d given it to me, but once I did know it, it hasn’t left me. Even if I don’t tend to think of my personal work ethics very much, they’re such a habit already, I am very diligent: I’m attentive and persistent and industrious no matter what I’m working at.
That is, I feel, the same diligence the Rabbis spoke of. If we can lend ourselves attentively, and persistently, to studying the Torah, we’ll be better off. As a code of ethics, the Torah teaches us how to deal with others both personally and professionally. As a code of righteousness, the Torah tells us how to bring ourselves closer to God. And as a code of cultural history, the Torah ties us together in ways foreign to others, uniting all Jews worldwide in an overarching community that has allowed us to persevere through the darkest moments of our long and arduous history.
And if diligence can do that simply by studying the Torah, imagine what wondrous things could befall us if we bring diligence into everything we do. It is as I said before: If you do something but once more each week, you’ve done it for four months more come the end of the year.
There is another thing that diligence can help us do: Due diligence in studying can help us to defend our thoughts and our ideas.
Can you imagine what might have happened if the Framers of the US Constitution lacked the diligence to arm themselves with the knowledge necessary to convince nine states to ratify it? Just think of it this way: In today’s times, that’s the equivalent of getting thirty-five States to agree upon the same thing! It’s almost impossible. And yet, by their diligence alone, it was won.
One of the best things about my American Government class this semester is that my teacher hosts a weekly forum pertaining to the topic we’re covering in class. Now, this doesn’t sound too exciting (most people reading this probably just rolled their eyes and groaned, “More work!”), but with a little bit of studying, we’ve had some of the best debates I’ve ever been a part of. Why? Because they weren’t senseless bickering between the informed and the uninformed, but genuine discussions on the many sides of legitimate issues.
When I come out of this class, I’ll be more informed about politics and government in general than most of my immediate peers. That’s a startling thought, but what’s more startling is that if you look at my entire course load this semester, when I’m done with these classes, I’ll know enough to not only hold a conversation on a myriad of issues ranging from policies to religions to random figures in the newspaper, but to hold my ground and clearly and effectively put forth my ideas in a way that not only will allow others to understand them, but also help to persuade them to agree with them and then support me–or else they’ll disagree and (I would hope) be able to respond reasonably in such a way that through our differences in opinion, we’re able to learn more about each other and the many nuances of thought that keep us from being drones with the same ideas and beliefs as everyone else.
All because of a little bit of diligence.
So where does duty come into this?
Rabbi Elazar tells us that we should know for Whom we labor and that our Employer can be relied upon to reward us properly. Now, the Rabbis loved euphemisms, and for all sorts of things, they called them everything and anything else they could of think of (these euphemisms can get amusing when we look at some of their writings on issues requiring a measure of modesty, such as laws concerning sexuality). In reading the Hebrew, I really don’t understand it enough to know if such nomenclature has been put into effect here, but based upon the choice capitalization of the translation, I can only imagine that the Whom and Employer in this line refer to God.
On the one hand, this is a pretty profound statement. We should know that, ultimately, all our actions are in the name of God and that, ultimately, we can rely on him to reward us for all we have done in his name. It brings to mind the Hindu practice of bhakti yoga, the path of emotion that allows people to transcend this world through imbuing every thought and every action with an undying and impenetrable devotion to their personal deity. Reading the foundation of this practice in the Bhagavad-Gita was both powerful and moving, and to see that same sense of love and devotion in the followers of other faiths has made me want to see it more in mine.
Then on the other hand, it might not even be about God.
So what then? Can we really always rely on our employer to reward us, to do his or her duty to us, their employee? Sadly, we are given no assurances, but in general we can usually be hopeful that those we work for do have us in mind. But then, who do we have in mind while we work?
We are told to know for whom we labor. To me this means we must understand what we’re doing and more importantly, who we’re doing it for. Our economy in the US has largely become a service economy; we don’t nearly manufacture as much as we sell as we serve. We have bank tellers, door greeters, cashiers, salesmen, doctors and nurses, lawyers, politicians, teachers–and the list goes on for so long it’s almost sickening. And the one thing they all have in common is that their work is done in the name of others.
This is where we the find the problem: These people aren’t working for others, they’re working for themselves. Sure, I’m sure many of them love what they do and love the chance they get to help others, but all of them chose to do what they do for themselves, not for others. Yet it is for others that all of them work!
I’m not saying if you love law you shouldn’t become a lawyer, but I am saying that no matter what you do, you should always know who you’re working for. If you’re a leader, you need to know whom you’re leading; if you’re a doctor, you need to know whom you’re treating. And once you do know, it’s your duty to keep them in mind and act for them every time you act at all. If you’re a politician, you’re not acting for yourself; you’re acting for all the people you represent, for all the people who voted for you and even for all the people who didn’t. I think we’d all enjoy our politics even more if we truly felt that they were in it for all of us, not all of them.
But this can go further: If everyone knows the people for whom they’re working, then workers wouldn’t need to worry about relying on their bosses to reward them, because their bosses would be relying on themselves to do this.
It comes full-circle in the end. If we can be diligent as we learn, we gain the defense we need to refute those who would go against us. If we act with diligence and can defend our ideas, we can then put them into action, not for ourselves, but for all the people we’re working for. It truly is an opportunity to give back, as some would say, but it’s also an opportunity to give forward, to build a place where others would want to live, a place where we could look back on someday and say, I wish I’d had a place like that myself.