Employer – employee tensions have existed since the beginning of time. One key example appears in this week’s parsha. Ya’akov Avinu, after working for his brother-in-law, Lavan, for 14 years to pay off his debt for marrying Leah and Rachel, turns to Lavan and says, “The little that you had before I came has expanded substantially, as G-d has blessed you with my coming…when will I also do something for my own house?” (Genesis 30:30) In other words, as Ramban explains, “When will I have the chance to produce wealth for my family as I have done for yours.”
This statement of Ya’akov is so relevant today. How many of us work hard for a company that benefits and profits from the sweat of our brow? How often does a talented worker go above and beyond and are lucky to get a mere pat on the back?
Ya’akov goes even further in his final encounter with Lavan by stating, “These twenty years I have been with you…by day, scorching heat consumed me and frost by night. My sleep drifted from my eyes…and you’ve changed my wages a hundred times.” (Genesis 31:38-41) Day and night, week after week, Ya’akov served his boss faithfully sacrificing his own self for the sake of the employer. Rather than rewarding the faithful and successful employee, Lavan kept changing the rules of the game to maximize his own gain and keep the profits away from Ya’akov.
Lavan responded, “The flock is my flock and all that you see here is mine.” (Genesis 31:43) He was reminding Ya’akov that he would have nothing if not for Lavan’s business initiative and risk filled investment. Lavan’s statement, though it may have been true, does not address his trickery and his deceit in the manner in which he handled the business.
Judaism is not anti big business. Judaism is not anti-wealth. Entrepreneurs provide society with innovation, with job opportunities, with economic growth. We see that our greatest leaders were prosperous. “Avraham was very wealthy” (Genesis 13:2) The Talmud in Shabbat (92a) states that Moshe was a wealthy man. Many of the great Talmudic figures were as well. We pray for a life of “honor and prosperity” when we bless the New Month.
In fact, the Talmudic in Nedarim (38a) lists four criteria of a great leader worthy of receiving G-d’s inspiration. “G-d’s presence only inspires a leader who is courageous, wealthy, wise and modest.” One who is courageous can be understood as one who has vision and is willing to take risks to actualize potential. However, גיבור can also be undertood as it is in most Talmudic literature – self restraint. As it says, “Who is courageous, one who has self control over his inclinations” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
And this is where Lavan crossed the line. He lacked any hint of modesty and was in it exclusively for himself. Whenever Ya’akov began to achieve success on his own, Lavan stepped in and changed the rules of the game for his own self aggrandizement. Greed, ego and jealousy led him to take abhorrent advantage of his faithful and self-sacrificing employee. He required Ya’akov to work through inhumane conditions and robbed him of years of his life with back breaking labor. All Lavan saw was the bottom line – how much would he profit – and not the humanity of the person that helped make it possible.
Thus, Judaism adopts a balanced approach to the employee – employer relationship. On the one hand, an employee must strive to be a “פועל צדק” – a just and honest worker (see Ta’anit 23a, Makkot 24a) as we learn Ya’akov was when he told his wives in this week’s parsha, “With all my might, I worked for your father.” Based on this the Rambam teaches that idling during work hours is tantamount to theft. Thus we all must be careful during our work day to refrain from going onto facebook, writing personal emails, checking out the latest headlines, or taking extra long coffee breaks, etc.
On the other hand, it is likewise important that the employer build his business honestly and provide the employee with adequate compensation and appropriate work conditions. We even see that the halacha permits a worker to eat from the fruit trees that he is working on (Beit Yosef, Hil. Poalim 337) because a happy worker is a productive worker and it is cruel for the worker to see and smell the fruit and not be able to taste from it.
Similarly, a smart and righteous employer will honor his employees and give them comfortable wages, a positive work environment, keep the terms honest and transparent and offer company employees profit sharing that will only further motivate workers to be more productive. Business at its best, filled with Jewish values, can be a win win for all.
May we all be blessed with G-d’s choicest blessings of health, wealth, prosperity and peace.