Avot 1:10—Sh’mayah says: Love work, despise positions of authority, and do not become overly comfortable with the authorities.
What is the relationship between Sh’mayah’s first statement—love work—and his subsequent warnings against cozying up to wealth and power?
Perhaps he was concerned about sycophancy as a cheap and misguided shortcut to what is conventionally seen as success. It is all too easy to turn to money and influence as a substitute for meaningful work. To follow that path is to lose one’s moral compass—as so many seeking to gain or maintain political leadership have sadly done in recent years.
Sh’mayah’s juxtaposition serves to clarify the true purpose of work—m’lachah—which is to repair a reasonable portion of the world’s brokenness. We obviously need to earn sufficiently to put bread on our tables, but integrity demands that in one way or another, our endeavors bring more healing than hurt. If we find ourselves focused on the accumulation of capital and influence for selfish purposes, it is time to reconsider our path. With some significant exceptions, the wealthy and powerful are heavily vested in maintaining the status quo, because that’s what helped enable their prosperity and prestige. If we are committed to doing our part in changing the world for the better, it is generally advisable to not get too comfortable with the individuals and institutions that have the most to gain by keeping things as they currently are. Holy labor is that which recognizes the world as it is, but never stops striving toward the vision of what it should be.