In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise plays a high-powered sports agent who’s in the work strictly for the money: “Show me the money!” as Jerry’s client, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., famously demands of him. By the end, after realizing there’s more to work than making money, Jerry re-envisions his career not as a job but as a mission. It was the same job, but he came to see it differently. He gave it meaning.
For many people, probably most people, the meaning of their work, their mission, is providing for their family. And, when you think about it, what could be more important than working to be able to pay for what your family needs to live and what your children need to flourish? That has been the great mission of generations of immigrants to America. It has been and continues to be their American Dream. They work hard to succeed and, if they don’t go as far as they might wish, then they work to make sure their children do.
My father taught me this lesson in a conversation he and Mom and I had after he retired. I told them that someone I knew had just moved into a big house up the hill from where Dad’s liquor store had been. They both said they knew exactly which house it was. “Let me tell you a story about that house and your father,” Mom said. “When he first opened the store, he actually walked from house to house in the neighborhood to introduce himself and his store and ask for business. When he came to that big house, which was occupied by a very wealthy family, whoever answered the door said they had a dirty basement and if he would clean it up for nothing, they would probably give him their liquor business. Well, Joseph, I can tell you, your father worked for a day and a half to clean that basement.
“It was filthy. I remember Dad telling me he found dead mice and all sorts of junk and grease there. But he got it done, and those people bought all their liquor from him from then on.”
I looked at my father and said, “Dad, I’ve got to tell you, it makes me angry that those people forced you to clean their basement without paying you in order to get their liquor business.”
But my dad said, “Don’t be angry, Joseph. I wasn’t angry. I was starting the business and I had very few customers. I had a wife to support, and we wanted to have children. So I did what I had to do, and that family bought a lot of liquor from me for years after that. And of course, what I was able to make from the liquor store, I used to buy this house and do a lot of other things, including paying for college and graduate school for you, Rietta, and Ellen. So, cleaning the basement was worth it.”
From my father’s great insight and the Bible’s wisdom, I have come to understand the deeper meaning of work and rest. I believe that all of creation bears the stamp of God’s creative intentions, down to the most microscopic elements of nature and human life. Just as no detail of God’s work of creation was too small to attract His interest because it was all important, so too, no detail of the work each one of us does is without significance and meaning. In our work we each contribute to the whole; we each continue God’s work of creation.
At Friday’s dinner and Saturday’s lunch, before we enjoyed the delicious challah, we thanked God for “bringing forth bread from the earth.” Of course it’s not literally true that loaves of bread spring from the ground. You can’t find a loaf of challah bread hanging on a stalk of wheat. Wheat and water, the ingredients of bread, come respectively from the earth and sky. For wheat to become challah requires the coordinated and creative efforts of human beings working together — growing and harvesting the wheat, making it into flour, mixing it with other ingredients, kneading it, baking, packaging, and distributing it. So we praise God for blessing us with the ability to cooperate with His creation and with other people that makes possible the production of bread from the earth and grain that God has given us. The same is true of how olives become oil and grapes become wine. I mention grain, oil, and wine because these are the specific rewards promised to us (in Deuteronomy 11:14) if we love the Lord our God and serve Him with all our heart and soul. To enjoy the reward, however, we must work. We must take God’s creation, and with our own creativity, make it into something that sustains and improves our lives. When we work, we become God’s active partners in improving the world until we perfect it. There is great challenge, excitement, and joy in such work.
That’s why I believe that the Sabbath is a covenant, and so, too, is our work a partnership with the Holy One. Both the Sabbath and work are commandments and gifts from God — each reinforcing the other. The Sabbath and the six days of labor together give us the greatest gifts of all: the gifts of meaning, purpose, and destiny. Rest without work would be meaningless. Work without rest would be purposeless. But together, work and rest offer us the hope of a better life today and the destiny of ultimate redemption tomorrow.
— Joseph Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut. This is excerpted from his new book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath.