Pirke Avot 1:10

Shemayah says:

Love work;

despise positions of power; and

do not become overly familiar with the government.

Shemayah lived shortly before the time of Jesus.

Love work. 


On the one hand – our society appears to be obsessed with work.  Americans work harder and work longer hours with less vacation time than in any other Western country.  It is not uncommon for people to work substantial amounts of uncompensated overtime hours in professions like law, small businesses, and finance – usually with the hope that it will “pay off” with a great deal of money later.

Sometimes this sense of being-driven by our work is by our own choice and personalities.  But oftentimes there is pressure put on workers by others (managers, owners) to work this way out of fear of being replaced, of being evaluated as unsuccessful, of being seen as  not being a “team-player”.

And on the other hand are those who live in less developed countries and who work sunup to sundown to barely survive.  They farm marginal land.  They pick the crops of rich landowners.  They work in factories producing consumer goods for export to the Western world.  They scavenge through the garbage dumps of big cities looking for something to sell or use.  These folks have no choice or say in the matter.

It is likely that it was to these latter folks that this particular bit of  wisdom was first directed to since the vast majority of people in the time and place of Shemaya were poor.  But true wisdom is for all, not just for some.  What does it say to both groups today?

The rabbis of the tradition interpret Shemayah’s words as follows.

Love your work, take pride in it. Do it well.  Use it to become independent and strong, use it to take care of yourself and your family.  Learn from it and through it – becoming wiser as you age.

But don’t let it enslave you.  Keep it in perspective.  It is a means to multiple ends (food, shelter, fun, leisure time, time to study) but is not, in itself, the reason you exist!  Overworked Americans (“I just love my job!”) need to remember that  a good job doesn’t love you back.

For those in the so-called “third world” – whatever one’s circumstances might be and might require of us – take pride in your work without letting it define you.  We are more than what we do.

Despise positions of power.

These words certainly seem counter-cultural don’t they?  Yet our Jewish and Christian faith traditions are themselves quite counter-cultural.

Jesus talked about being servants to one another, about the Kingdom of God belonging to the least ones, about the “first shall be last and the last shall be first”.

What is it about power (political, economic, social, military) that has Shemaya and Jesus so wary about it?

Power tends to corrupt the power holder.  Tempted to take what is not theirs, to act in ways that are counter to faith and our traditions, and for good intentions to become warped and twisted and self-serving.  We have seen this over and over again in our political leaders (both parties), in rich people (stock market manipulation, mortgage lending and selling), in media celebrities of both sexes and all ages.  We have seen military power and capability get abused around the world century after century.

The privileges of power (money, status, honors) corrupt power holders.  They become ends in themselves.  People will do anything it takes to keep the privileges coming and growing, including moving away from God, their families and friends, and their truest selves.  Don’t almost all of those who get caught and fall from power end up telling us that “I lost track of what was important”?

Paradoxically – power can make us less free!  Who is more free – President Obama or someone on the White House custodial staff?  Who is getting woken up in the middle of the night?  Who has the weight of the free world on their shoulders?  Who is attacked in the press constantly?  Who has the freedom to come and go as they please?  Who will spend the evening playing ball with their children and talking with their spouse night after night?  EXACTLY!

Only to the extent that we see positions of power as positions of real service should we get engaged in them.   And then with reluctance, with great caution and humility, and with the wisdom of the ages to guide us and keep us on track!

Do not become overly familiar with the government.

This was written in the time of the Roman Empire – a government forced on Jews and Christians at the time.  We live in a democracy – so there is some modification to do here.

Firstly – the Roman government was efficient in building roads, aqueducts, and cities.  They were good at  expanding the empire  and conquering other peoples – but it was not real big on human rights or  freedom.  Historians tell us that from 33% to 50% of all the inhabitants of the empire were slaves!

So, Shemaya’s insight is that to cozy up to an occupying power, for whatever good intentions one might have, is a dangerous game to play.  Better to keep one’s distance – not necessarily in active and open rebellion, but remember that they have their interests in mind only – not yours!  They will use you and throw you away!

But that was then, this is now.  What does this say to us today in the United States?

I was once a government bureaucrat myself (13 years at the IRS doing computer work) and I do not EVER engage in general government bashing.  I do not believe (as so many on the fringes of our country seem to believe and say) that our government is out to steal your money or your time or your rights or your guns or anything else.

But Jesus did say that you cannot serve two masters.  Faith and politics can coincide here or there but are just as often in conflict.   Involvement in politics and even in government service will inevitably put us in situations in which we will have to choose between our faith and what the public / politics want from us.  And unfortunately, as time has shown again and again, faith ends up being pushed to the side.

So, what does it all mean?

Shemaya and Jesus are reminding us – keep things in perspective and keep the things of faith closest to our hearts.  Love your work but do not let it consume you, use it to become free.  Do not fall in love with power of any kind – it does not really free you but actually restricts your freedom and may corrupt you.  Do not make friends with an occupying government and be wary of politics in general – you will eventually be in conflict and in danger of losing your faith.

Questions to ponder:

  1. Can you identify people in your life who have loved their work a little too much?
  2. Do you love your work and see it as a gift from God, as a vocation?  Or is it just a job?
  3. Does your work set you free or does it enslave you?
  4. Where have you seen power used well?  Used badly?