I remember thinking as a child that adults really have it easy. They don’t have to go to school, they don’t have to do homework, they can do whatever they want without anyone telling them what to do and they don’t have to worry about being picked last in gym. They can eat ice cream before dinner, they can stay up late, they can drive---and the only thing that they had to do was work and how hard is that? You go to work, you come home and eat dinner and you have the whole night ahead of you without a homework assignment hanging over your head! I couldn’t wait to get out of school and become an adult. Working would be a lot more fun than having to go to school every day.
In the Bible we read about Cain and Abel the two sons of Adam and Eve. The Bible doesn’t tell us too much about them other than that Abel was a shepherd and that Cain worked the land. At some point they both decide to bring an offering to God and Cain brings from the produce of the ground and Abel brings the choicest of his flock as his offering. God accepts the offering of Abel but Cain’s offering is rejected. This angers Cain and he becomes dejected. God asks Cain why he is so upset; he need just improve and his offering will also be accepted.
The Bible does not tell us why the offering of Cain was rejected. The Sages suggest the following powerful thought. The Bible describes Abel as a “roei tzon”-a shepherd of sheep and it describes Cain as an “oveid adamah”-a worker of the land. The expression “oveid adamah” can also be translated literally as a servant or slave of the land. This term implies that Cain was completely subjugated by his work. There was no room in his life for a meaningful, serious relationship with God. He was totally consumed by his work and that was the only thing that he was able to take seriously. His offering to God was perfunctory, it was not heartfelt. His loyalty to his profession as a farmer superseded anything else and it was therefore his offering that was rejected.
Notice that God tells Cain that he must improve (as opposed to his offering must be improved). It is Cain that needs to overhaul his life and reprioritize his work and his relationship with God. Abek, on the other hand, was a shepherd of sheep and yet he left room in his career to make enough space for honest spiritual growth and a relationship with God. His worked served him while he did not serve it, and as a result he was in control of his life and what he did with it.
Since the dawn of time man has struggled to find that delicate balance between work and everything else that matters in life. The message that God gives over to Cain and that echoes down to us today is that who we are is far more important than what we do. Far too many people are workaholics either by choice or necessity and let their work define them and become the highest priority in life. While we all would agree that work is not or should not be the highest priority we often live as if it is.
Service of God is called “avodah” in Hebrew which literally means work. We need to become workaholics in our service of God expending the same energy and effort as we do in our jobs. Whether we are the owner of the company or an employee we would never be satisfied with the level we have achieved at work. This should be our attitude when we serve God and embrace spiritual growth.
To paraphrase what a senator from Massachusetts once said: No one ever says on their deathbed, “I should have spent more time at work.”