By Rabbi Dovid Markel
Why do I work so hard? It hardly seems fair that G-d makes my life so difficult, when others seem to be far better off than myself.
The following elucidation regarding the purpose of our physical exertion should help answer your question.
This clarification is based upon the words of R. Yosef Chaim (the Ben Ish Chai) in his Shabbos HaGadol sermon.
There were once two brothers. The first was a blacksmith who toiled in his labor the entire day and a significant part of the night. He labored assiduously, banging his hammer and fanning the fire in order to produce his articles, yet all he gained from his backbreaking work was three dinar a day.
The other brother was a stone setter, who created jewelry from diamonds and pearls. He worked only four hours a day. His job was neither laborious, nor did it take the same physical exertion—yet he gained ten dinar a day from his work.
The brother who had the harder job that paid less, went to the rabbi of his city to vent his frustration. He articulated to the rabbi as follows:
“My brother and I are both children of the same man. If our livelihood is a result of his merit, then our toil and our return should be equal. If, though, our livelihood is upon our own merits, than my livelihood should be greater than my brother’s tenfold, as there is a decidedly different manner between my actions and his, regarding our spiritual pursuits.
“For, I wake up three hours before daybreak every morning, I recite tikun chatzos and learn Torah until the time of prayer. I pray in the synagogue and learn for an hour and a half after prayers. In addition to all of this, I give a tenth of my daily earnings to charity.
“My brother, on the other hand, never learns Torah, nor does he pray in synagogue, and he never gives charity.
“How then, can it be that I toil so hard, yet make so little and by brother toils little, yet makes money in abundance?!”
The rabbi comforted the frustrated man with the following words:
“My son, what you see is the advantage that your brother has in physical wealth. What you do not see is your advantage when it comes to spiritual wealth. Just as a scholar elevates G-dly sparks through his Torah study, so too, when a person works in his job faithfully, he as well elevates G-dly sparks.”
The rabbi went on to explain:
“The Talmud recounts: ‘When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, “Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity], did you fix times for learning?”’ They first enquire regarding one’s physical work and afterwards they question regarding his spiritual work. Just as the more one toils in Torah, the more G-dly sparks are elevated, so too, the more one toils physically, the more he elevates sparks as well. The greater pain that one has, the more gain there is in both the spiritual and the physical.”
He went on to elaborate: “Therefore, although your brother may make more money than you, your spiritual gain through your intense toil is a thousand times greater than his. No one can know one’s place in Heaven. You therefore should be happy with your portion, and not be dejected about your toil, as you have merited to elevate many G-dly sparks.”
When a person toils in their labor in a faithful way according to the Torah, they should not be disappointed concerning their abundant labor, as their toil elevates G-dly sparks.
The Mishna in Avos records, “Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.”
A person should not be jealous of those that are rich like kings, and do not work for their keep. As through one’s toil—through the vast amount of sparks that were elevated through their exertions—they merit in the World to Come, that the revelation of G-dliness they have earned there (expressed in their table and crown) is greater than an individual who did not need to physically toil.