Work and Worship

Work and Worship

“Avodah”, one of the key Hebrew words for “work,” also means “worship.”

Jonathan Sachs, former Chief Rabbi in Britain, writes about Exodus 1:13-14:

‘These two verses contain the word avodah in one form or another five times. Translated more literally, they read:

The Egyptians made the Israelites labour with crushing rigour. They embittered their lives with hard labour, with mortar and bricks and all kinds of labour in the field: all the labour they laboured for them was crushing.

In total, the word appears seven times – a significant number – in the first two chapters of Exodus. So the Torah intends us to hear, as the motif of the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt, the word avodah in its dual sense of hard work and slavery. Hence our surprise when, during Moses’ epiphany at the burning bush, we hear God saying:

“I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship [ta’avdun] God on this mountain.” (Ex. 3:12).

The Israelites will know that they have left Egypt and slavery when they arrive at the mountain and there engage in avodah to God. The same word is used to describe slavery and freedom, bondage and liberation, Egypt and exodus …There we were avadim, here we are avadim. There we had to work for a master, here we have to work for a Master … All that has changed is the master’s identity.’

The link between work (slavery to a master) and worship (honouring the one we serve) is made explicit by using the same word in Hebrew. We miss this in English. It seems to me this is closely related to the point about “faith” being more about “allegience” than “belief.”

And this seems especially pertinent today when Britons are being asked to adopt the offensive American practice of swearing allegiance to one who is not God, since it is Christ not Caesar who is Lord and you cannot serve two masters.