There is a wonderful tale of a wealthy man who apprenticed his son to a local farmer for a year:
Knowing the boy’s father was rich, the farmer spoke kindly with the lad and gave him no work to do. At the end of the year, the boy was handed a bag with one hundred silver coins and sent home.
When the son returned and handed his wages to his father, the latter threw the sack of money into a nearby river, but the boy merely shrugged his shoulders and was silent.
After the summer, once again the father sent his son to a local farmer for training. This farmer, like the one of the previous year, knew of the man’s affluence and coddled the young apprentice by giving him no chores or responsibilities. Also like the other farmer, he gave the boy one hundred silver coins at the end of the year and sent him home.
When the son arrived home, his father did just as he had before and took the money and tossed it into a nearby river while the boy watched. The son, just as he had before, uttered not a word of protest and displayed no emotion.
When autumn came once more, the father, brought his son to a third farmer, but this time hid his great wealth when turning the boy over for the year of work. After the father departed this time, the boy was treated much differently: He was woken by the farmer before sunrise, chided for being lazy and given tasks to perform until the boy collapsed, exhausted at the day’s end.
At the end of his apprenticeship, the boy’s clothes were in tatters, his hands were calloused and his feet blistered. As two others had done before him, this third farmer gave the boy one hundred silver coins and sent him home.
The young man handed the money to his father as before, but as his father was about to throw his wages into the river, the young boy cried out: “Please father, don’t!”
The father looked at his son and asked, “Why not? One day you will inherit my fortune.”
“Yes, I know,” said the son. “But this money, I earned.”
The Lesson Lived
When I was young, I wanted a silver ID bracelet. I was obsessed and thought it was the hippest thing to wear, so I asked my parents if they would buy it for me. They told me to “earn the money,” and so I became a delivery boy for Leopold’s Pharmacy, pedaling my two-wheeler all over Haddon Heights, dropping off prescriptions and hoping for big tips.
When I finally had collected enough to make the purchase, I proudly strutted into Davis Jewelers, handed Mr. Davis my own money and ordered my shiny silver ID bracelet. Now I know: Had my parents simply handed me the money, I have no doubt that I would have been robbed of a joyous, glorious thrill; that I had earned every penny made the ID bracelet not just a piece of jewelry, but a triumph.
There is a powerful notion expressed in the Talmud that decries unearned ownership. It is condemned, disparaged as nechama dekisufa, “bread of shame.” The rabbis taught that man is to work for what he gets, not simply receive handouts.
Life is to be measured by tattered clothes, calloused hands and blistered feet. A divine message to humanity from the opening chapter of Genesis says that our possessions are valued not by the price tag, but by zayot apecha. “the sweat of our brow.”
We admire the father who exercised tough love in teaching his spoiled son. I admire my parents who taught me that “if you want it, you should work for it.”
Gratitude for What’s Earned
This month, we celebrate Thanksgiving, perhaps the quintessential American holiday. We eat turkey and cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes and express gratitude for our bounty.
Still, that’s not because our bounty was dropped into our lap; it didn’t tumble from the sky, and it wasn’t plucked from a tree in Eden. Our bounty came from courage, delayed gratification, a work ethic, recognizing opportunity, getting an education, choosing wisely and self-reliance.
Unfortunately, today, the diet of choice for many is the bread of shame. It is gobbled up with unfortunate enthusiasm. The sages of old understood that such behavior was destructive of dignity and an assault on humanity, and we today must acknowledge their wisdom and their vision.
Societies, cultures, countries and civilizations rise with tattered clothes, calloused hands and blistered feet. They fall when they endorse checks and don’t sign them.
BY RABBI SHALOM LEWIS / FOR THE ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES
Editor’s note: Rabbi Shalom Lewis is the senior rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb.