Hard Work: Some Thoughts on Uncle Ernie z”l

With the recent passing of my Oma’s brother I have been thinking about the importance of my German ancestry. For as long as I can recall Uncle Ernie z”l exuded a certain nobility, honor, impeccable style, and German accent. In his 98 years of life he saw the worst and best of humanity. His Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story was exemplified by the joy he took in driving his Jaguar. For the longest time Ernie served was a link to the long gone mythic European world of my family. This was not just a romantic notion of the alte heim, but also connection to a greater generation. Much has been written about the shift from the generation that lived through the horrors of World War II to the world we live in today, in reflection I am interesting in a shift in work ethic.

My mother’s first language was German, but sadly not that much was passed on to me of the language.  In writing this piece I had to call my mother to get clarity on as expression I recalled from my youth. When referring to a worker engaged in heavy physical labor she would say Schwerarbeiter- heavy worker. From a young age it was burned into my consciousness that there was a value of working hard. I have internalized this as cultural  devotion to the idea and value of working hard.

I was thinking about this when reading Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion.  There we read:

I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt from being slaves to them; and I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. Leviticus 26:13

On this idea of breaking the pegs Rashi says:

A plowing yoke consists of a bar that is placed over the animal’s neck and reins that are placed under its neck and threaded through two holes at each end of the bar. This term מוֹט refers to a type of peg, which is inserted into the two [holes at the] ends of the yoke. [These pegs therefore jam the reins tightly through the holes,] preventing the reins from coming off the ox’s head and [preventing the] undoing of the knot. ( Rashi on Leviticus 26:13)

So when the peg that tethered the yoke to load is removed the animal is free. But just removing the peg does not make you stand “upright”. As Prof. Dan Dennett said, “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” We were redeemed from slavery in Egypt to serve a higher cause. Yes we were free from Egypt, but more importantly we were free to go to Sinai. The issue with slavery was not the hard work, but rather the lack of connection to the cause of that labor.

Recently a dear friend Rabbi Dan Utley shared a meaningful poem with me. In her poem “To be of Use“,  Marge Piercy wrote:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.  (To be of Use)

No one wants to be a slave. We all want to be the ones to put in the peg and drive home the work that we want to get done. Even if it seems old worldly I want to work hard along side of others for a common and noble cause. So yes I am tired, but when my days come to an end, like Uncle Ernie, I too want to be known as a Schwerarbeiter.

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