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Thursday, November 18, 2004

VaYetze - The Duty of the Employee

ואתנה ידעתן, כי בכל כחי עבדתי את אביכן. ואביכן התל בי, והחליף את משכורתי עשרת מונים.

(בראשית ל"א, ו'-ז')

זה עשרים שנה אנכי עמך, רחליך ועזיך לא שכלו ואילי צאנך לא אכלתי. טרפה לא הבאתי אליך, אנכי אחטנה מידי תבקשנה, גנובתי יום וגנובתי לילה. הייתי ביום אכלני חרב וקרח בלילה, ותדד שנתי מעלי. זה לי עשרים שנה בביתך, עבדתיך ארבע עשרה שנה בשתי בנתיך, ושש שנים בצאנך; ותחלף את משכורתי עשרת מונים.

(בראשית ל"א, ל"ח-מ"א)

VaYetze is my Bar Mitzva parasha.

The parasha tells us about the twenty years Ya’akov spent at his father-in-law's house, employed as a shepherd. After God commands Ya’akov to leave and Ya’akov understands from changes in Lavan’s behaviour that the time has come to leave, he summons his wives, Rachel and Leah, and says:

And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me.

(Genesis 31, 7; KJV)

We know that Lavan was a master of deception and cruelty and was far from begin a fair employer. Indeed, when Lavan catches up with Ya'akov, he hears from Ya'akov the following accusations:

This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times.

(Genesis 31, 38-41; KJV)

So we hear twice from Ya'akov that Lavan has cheated him out of his salary "tenfold". Yet despite all this, we learn that Ya'akov fulfilled his duty to work diligently and faithfully, "with all his power", throughout his long stay in Aram Nahara'im. We hear that he bore losses, worked through heat and cold, day and night. Surely, given Lavan being such a terrible employer, Ya'akov had every right to work for his master with less devotion?

The duty of the employee towards his employer is considered as a duty of the highest standing by the Halacha. In fact, Rambam quotes our parasha to state that an employee should work with "all his power", be very careful on not wasting time when working and be mindful of the employer's property. An employee is even exempt from certain prayers, such as the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, so as not to waste time during work (Hilchot Sechirut, 13, 7). Furthermore, when there is a conflict between a man's duty towards God and his duty towards his employer, we see the Halacha giving priority to the duty towards the employer.

Ya'akov's behaviour teaches us the importance of taking our work seriously, of respecting the person (or the company) that has provided us with the capability to work and make a living. This duty is regarded so highly that it binds the employee even if the employer is far from being a just and fair person, just as in Lavan's and Ya'akov's case. The fact that the employer might be a cheater and a scoundrel does not exempt the employee from performing his job in the best possible manner. It certainly does not give him the right to behave in the same manner.

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