Last week I saw a middle-aged man wearing a popular T-shirt: “Hard work never killed anyone, but why risk it?” I’m used to seeing this kind of thing on teenagers but never on someone his age. Did he buy it for himself, or worse, did his boss purchase it for him? We’ll never know, and I wasn’t about to ask. The slogan feeds into a certain attitude about work that sanctifies laziness and makes it into an art form. Even Anne Frank admitted the attraction of laziness but believed that only work could bring a true sense of satisfaction.
In Genesis, God works and then rests and demands that we do the same. God also had a six-day work week, embedding in creation the notion of purpose that comes through industry. Perhaps in no biblical character is this work ethic more apparent than in Ruth. One might argue that Jacob worked very hard and under poor, exploitative conditions, for his father-in-law Laban, but he did this out of love. Ruth works simply to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. She was also a woman in a man’s world, as testified by the verse where Boaz makes sure that no men harass her in the fields while she is gleaning.
Ruth asked special permission to work, understanding that gleaning in the fields as pauper, widow and convert would have been degrading to her mother-in-law, who left Bethlehem as a woman of means and returned empty: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.’”[Ruth 2:2] At this point, there was little either could do but rely on the kindness of strangers.
But the fact that Ruth was prepared to work does not indicate that she worked hard. Our proof comes from a third-party observer. Boaz had an overseer who spent his days supervising the activity in the fields. When Boaz spots a new young woman gleaning, he notices her hard work and asks the overseer about her. “The overseer replied, ‘She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, ‘Let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.’”[Ruth 2:6-7]
Nothing like a little workplace gossip. People of the town knew that a Moabite woman had come back with their old neighbor Naomi. Her conversion did not seem to register. As far as they were concerned, she was still a foreigner, but she won the admiration of this supervisor because she worked all day with nary a break in the hot Middle Eastern sun.
The Talmud states that a father is obligated to teach his child a trade. [BT Kiddushin 29-30]. Failure to do so may result in thievery because the child who becomes an adult with no dignified way to make a living may resort to crime. People need money to live. Yet later on in the same tractate, sages weighed in on preferred trades. Don’t be a donkey or camel driver, a pot maker, a sailor a shepherd or a store-keeper. Some of these professions were associated with deceit or long absences. One sage naturally believes that Torah is the perfect trade, as it “preserves one from all evil and in his youth it provides one with a future and a hope in his old age.”
The Talmud also makes a general observation about work. “Rabbi Meir says, ‘A person should always teach his son a clean and easy trade and pray to the One to Whom wealth and property belong, as there is no trade that does not include both poverty and wealth. Poverty does not come from a particular trade, rather all is in accordance with a person’s merit.’” Work goes in cycles of success. Be righteous and you may find more success in what you do.
In any event, no matter what your work, Ruth teaches us not only the value of kindness but the importance of hard work. And if you don’t learn it from Ruth, then try Babe Ruth: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”