Avodah: A Tough Job
Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver
The purpose of a Jew’s life is avodas Hashem. The word avodah has multiple meanings. The most basic meaning is sheirus, to serve Hashem like a servant serves and prepares things for his master, similar to the expression, “I was created to serve my Maker.” Thus, the word avodah means service.
However, the Hebrew word avodah also has a different but related connotation. It is etymologically related to the word ibud, “processing.” This involves taking a coarse, unusable substance, and treating it in various ways until it is refined and usable.
The classic example of this is taking a smelly, foul hide of an animal, and investing the tremendous effort necessary to treat it using many and various treatments until it is converted into leather. Then not only can it be used for constructive mundane purposes, it can even be used for holy purposes, such as parchment for Tefillin and the like.
Likewise, the Jew must engage in avodah in the sense of processing a coarse substance—taking the gashmiyus and the chumriyus (see here) of his body, his Bestial Soul, and the world around him, and fighting and struggling with herculean strength, even in the face of tremendous adversity, to reject the chumriyus and refine and transform the gashmiyus into a vessel for spirituality and G–dliness.
The extent and nature of the effort required to accomplish this transformation varies greatly, depending upon the person’s individual level and life circumstances.
Just as processing hides involves transforming a substance from one extreme to another, so are we to transform the Bestial Soul from a desire for worldly pleasures to the other extreme—love of Hashem.
Furthermore, the hide resists being changed into leather, because one wants to change it into a state completely different from its natural state. So, too, the Bestial Soul naturally resist one’s efforts to transform it, and this necessitates avodah—tremendous effort to go against one’s nature. And yet this resistance is in fact positive, because otherwise we would not need avodah—toil to change the Bestial Soul, and Hashem wants this task to require effort.
This analogy, which emphasizes the need for toil, also implies that it is insufficient to serve Hashem out of fear alone; fear of Hashem does not necessarily require toil, for some people possess a natural fear of Hashem. In contrast, love of Hashem always requires effort to evoke; thus, true self-refinement requires developing both fear and love of Hashem.
Moreover, the hide is hard, and so processing it involves crushing it in order to soften it, and then it can become leather. Likewise, a Jew should engage in Iskafya, lit. “subduing”—going against his nature and crushing it. This softens his personality, fulfilling the directive of our sages, “One should always be soft like a reed, and not hard like cedar.”
This analogy also expresses to the emotional difficulty involved, for the task of processing hides is degrading. Thus, we find that “One may not appoint a king or a high priest who was a tanner [one who processes hides]; since this task is degrading, the people will deride them.” Likewise, the task of transforming the body, the Bestial Soul, and the outside world, will involve enduring unpleasantness and degradation.
A Jew who struggles to overcome his nature is called an oved Elokim, a servant of Hashem. The use of the word oved in present tense implies that this expression refers to one engaged in a constant, lifelong battle with the evil inclination.
Why is the specific name of Elokim used in this context? Because Elokim, which has the numerical value of hateva, nature, is the divine name that creates the natural order. And when a Jew toils to change his own nature within, this has an impact upon the cosmos in general, such that he “processes” and refines the natural order as a whole, which stems from the divine name of Elokim.
Moreover, ultimately, investing the tremendous effort required to refine the physical elevates the Jew to a state of bittul bimetzius, complete submission to Hashem. This means that not only the Neshamah, but even the Bestial Soul and the body reach a state of bittul bimetzius, such that their entire being exists only to fulfill Hashem’s will. May we all merit to reach this level!
 Kiddushin 82b.
 Hemshech Mayim Rabim 5636, p. 91.
 Torah Ohr, Bereshis 5b; ibid., Mishpatim 76a. Likkutei Torah, Vayikra 2d.
 Hayom Yom, 17 Sivan.
 Toras Menachem 5718, Vol. 22, p. 39.
 Ma’amarei Admur HaTzemach Tzedek, 5615, p. 266.
 Cf. Tanya ch. 17.
 Toras Menachem 5711, Vol. 3, p. 152.
 Tanya 118a.
 Toras Menachem 5712, Vol. 4, p. 329.
 Kuntres HoAvodah, chs. 1-3.
 Of course, some may have to exert more effort than others—cf. Tanya ch. 42.
 Ma’amarim Melukatim, Vol. 2, p. 361.
 Ta’anis 20a.
 Sefer HaSichos 5751, Vol. 1, p. 158.
 Kiddushin 82a. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 1:6.
 Tanya ch. 15.
 Toras Menachem 5712, Vol. 5, p. 138.
 Ramak, Pardes 12:2. Reishis Chochmah, Sha’ar HaTeshuvah, ch. 6, s.v. vehamargil.
 Cf. Likkutei Torah, Balak 73d.
 Sefer HaMa’amarim 5733, p. 377.
Dedicated in the merit of a speedy release for the captives Yonasan ben Malka (Jonathan Pollard), Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka (Sholom Rubashkin), and Zeva Rochel bas Chaya (Wendy Weiner Runge).
Dedicated by the Weinberger family in honor of the yahrtzeit of Melech ben Sara Masha a"h on 19 Tammuz.
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