Soon after the Communists gained power in Russia, they began placing restrictions on Jewish practices. Ultimately, all Jewish educational institutions were forced to shutter, while those spotted in synagogues risked being fired from their jobs. As the decades passed, the Soviets’ squashing of almost all public Jewish life meant most Jews were raised with little Biblical education and knowledge.
In the early 1970s, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin traveled to the Soviet Union on a secret mission to strengthen and assist Soviet Jewry throughout the Soviet Union. It was a dangerous trip, and he was trailed by suspicious KGB agents most of the time that he was there. One Sabbath, Rabbi Riskin prayed in a synagogue in Riga, while Soviet agents sat in the back pews. Rabbi Riskin was honored with opening the Ark and taking out the Torah scroll. As he took out the scroll, the sexton whispered to him in Yiddish: “We’re thirsty for Torah study! We will be having some refreshments downstairs after the service, and we want you to share some thoughts with us. Come downstairs after the service – but without your ‘friends,’” glancing at the KGB agents.
Fortunately for Rabbi Riskin, when the services were over the KGB agents left the synagogue for a lunch break and Rabbi Riskin went downstairs, through a long dark hallway, until he found a room with 15 men standing around a table with a plate of honey cake and a few bottles of vodka. The sexton smiled at him and poured him a full glass of vodka, and Rabbi Riskin recited the blessing before eating. He shared a teaching from the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei (the Bible portion Jews around the world are reading this week), and they sang a song and danced in honor of the Sabbath. Then they poured him another glass of vodka, Rabbi Riskin shared more Bible teachings, and everybody sang and danced again. This cycle – a shot of vodka, a Bible study, a song – repeated itself several times.
Eventually, Rabbi Riskin ran out of Bible teachings – he had nothing left to say! But he was feeling good – very good, after all that vodka – and said to one of the men in the room: Please –“I’d like you to share a Bible teaching. I want to hear something I can bring back to New York with me.”
The Russian Jew obliged, and cited the following verse about paying a day laborer: “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to Hashem against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy 24:15). If we employ a laborer, we must pay him at the end of the day; we must not delay in paying his wages.
“But God,” said the Russian Jew, seems to be hypocritical on this point. “Many righteous people suffer greatly in this world and only receive their rightful rewards when they reach heaven. But how can this be? How can God tell us that we have to pay the day laborer at the end of the day, when God Himself does not pay us for our holy deeds as soon as we perform them?! How can God make us wait until the end of our lives, until we reach the next world? It’s hypocritical!”
You can imagine that, for these Russian Jews, this wasn’t simply a theoretical question. These Jews were risking their careers, and even their lives, by coming to the synagogue and maintaining their Jewish identity. By being there, at this ‘criminal’ gathering, drinking vodka and sharing words of Torah, they were placing their lives –and their families’ lives – in danger! Where was their reward?
The Russian Jew answered his own question. “In Biblical law, there is a distinction between a day laborer, a worker hired by the hour or by the day, and a contractor hired by the project. A day laborer is easily replaceable; most day laborers don’t bring any particular skills or abilities to their jobs. This kind of laborer must be paid at the end of every day.”
“But a contractor is different. A contractor is hired for a unique job; not just anybody can do what he does. The contractor is not hired for a particular amount of time but for as long as the job takes. And so a contractor must be paid only at the end of a project.”
“We, vis-à-vis God, are not day laborers. We are contractors! God has “hired” each of us to perform a unique job in a particular place and at a particular time. God has given each of us our unique talents to fulfill this contract. None of us are here by accident; we have each been given a highly specific project! This “project” begins as soon as we are able to make decisions for ourselves, and the “project” ends only when we die. Only then, at the end of our lives, can God judge whether we have successfully completed our project here on earth. And so only then can we be properly paid for our hard work and rewarded for all of the good we do in this world!”
The Russian Jew looked at everyone in the room and said: “The most important thing one can do in this world is to discover his purpose; how each of us can best improve the world even a little bit, given our individual abilities and situation. And we must discharge our divinely given responsibility with as much integrity, devotion and grace as we can possibly muster.”
Too often, we fall into the trap of acting like day laborers. We punch the clock, go to synagogue or church, and call it a day. We keep our heads down, try to do the right thing, and the years fly by. We forget that we were not born into this world to be “day laborers.” That none of us is replaceable! We forget that we all have a unique project that must be completed before time runs out.
As we approach the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), now is the time to remember why we are here – to reflect upon the unique project that God has contracted with each us to perform. May we merit to get the job done!