“Shmaayah would say: ‘Love work, loath mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government.'” – Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 1:10)
The blockquote above is an excerpt from the volume of Jewish law and learning known as the Sayings or Ethics of the Fathers (Hebrew: Pirkei Avot.) It is a relatively short volume that summarizes a lot of the moral and religious teachings of the Jewish tradition from the period of late antiquity. Traditional Judaism holds that it and the rest of the much larger compendium of Hebrew and Aramaic writings known collectively as the Talmud constitute a distillation of and commentary upon oral teachings that go back to the giving of Torah to Moses.
Work is how “the good” is made – financially, agriculturally, at a desk, with a backhoe, at a website, through the exertion of considerable effort. Mastery over others or connections with politicians or archdukes allows one to extract what belongs to others, directly or by proxy. Perhaps more importantly, loving work orients a person towards producing and benefitting others, while lording it over others or making friends with powerful people who do allows one to view other people as things, pawns to protect a king – what the Jewish neo-Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber called an “I-It” relationship of utility as opposed to an “I-Thou” relationship of encounter. While loving work doesn’t translate automatically into a pure relationship of personal encounter – a butcher and a baker don’t need to “encounter” each other personally merely to swap chicken for bread – a world where people love work rather than love power over slaves or tax farms for a crown is a freer world, a less cruel one.
Work puts one’s own skin in the game and inculcates humility; lording it over others or having it “in” with politicians allows for an inequitable split of risk and reward, let alone the narcissistic tendencies that accompany politics and the wealth to hire servants. Work does not always ennoble a worker, but work that can be loved – the work of free people doing meaningful work – ennobles the worker and all humankind. Loving work will enable someone to view himself – not his servants or his buddies “downtown” – as the solution to the problems of life.