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The Man With The Mop #754

11/25/2022 04:30:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Chayei Sarah: “Let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac.” Genesis 24:14

The Man with the Mop

On Monday, at about 6:30 pm, my wife and I made our way to our seats at the Bell Center in Montreal.

Although I enjoy attending New York Islanders games, when it comes to sports, the blood that flows through me is Montreal Canadiens red.

We were in Montreal for a two-day getaway, one night at the hockey game, the next at the symphony. But it was an incident on that first night at the Bell Center that truly caught my eye.

As we watched the teams warm up, someone noticed a puddle of soda about five seats to our right, spilled by a child a row above us.

Within moments, a short, stocky fellow with a mop and a bucket appeared. He quickly dabbed up the large puddle, and attempted to quietly exit the row.

But then something quite remarkable happened. The handful of early-bird fans rose, and gave the custodian a standing ovation. One quietly looked the worker in the eye and said, “Merci patron,” which translates to “Thank you, boss.”

The worker smiled and with a light bounce climbed up the stairs, while we continued watching the warmup.

It was a seemingly insignificant moment, but extremely important in my eyes because within the working class area of Montreal, where the Bell Center is located, the value of work – all work—is not only recognized, but honored.

Indeed, how often do we say “thank you” or provide a standing ovation to someone behind the scenes who takes care of those seemingly small tasks that enable us to enjoy our comfortable—and often—antiseptic lives.

They include the trash collectors, the street sweepers, sewer inspectors, coal miners, oil rig workers, grave diggers and those who work in meat processing plants—to name a few.

Whenever we perform a funeral, the Cantor and I habitually thank the front-line cemetery workers for their effort.

“It’s important work,” one worker once shared with me as we waited at graveside for the funeral party to arrive. “Sometimes it’s very cold and sometimes it’s very hot—but without us, it would not be possible for the person to rest in peace.”

Too often, there is a misconception that manual work is intended for the lowest on the social scale or immigrants, but perhaps we, as a society, need to open our eyes more to the dedication and work ethic of so many who make our lives a lot more comfortable.

So many of our parents and grandparents practiced that ethic, teaching us one of our most important life lessons—the importance of hard work.

This past Tuesday afternoon, as we drove along Boulevard St. Laurent, known to some as Montreal’s “Leonard Cohen and Duddy Kravitz neighborhood,” I remembered my paternal grandfather, Duddie, who before saving enough money to buy a corner grocery store, made his living hauling blocks of ice up long flights of stairs.

And there was my material grandfather, Nissan, who in subzero temperatures, walked along country roads in northern Quebec selling socks, underwear, combs, and toiletries farmhouse to farmhouse.

Indeed, the greatest compliment I ever received came when I was 19. as I overheard Moshe, the supervisor of the small packing plant that sorted pears on my kibbutz in Israel, tell this assistant:

Hu Oved Chazzak,” Translation: “That boy over there works hard.”

Indeed, in my eyes, the discussion about the value of work—all work— takes us to this week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Generations) as the text recounts the birth of twins to Judaism’s second couple, Isaac and Rebekah.

When he reached adulthood, Esau, the eldest, would venture into the forest and hunt for food. His father liked that. As the Torah recounts, “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game.” (Genesis 25:27-28)

But according to our tradition, Rebekah favored Jacob, who our Sages say stayed close to home, studied Talmud, and raised livestock.

Later in our parashah, Rebekah, with Jacob’s support, tricks an aging Isaac into naming Jacob, rather than Esau, as his primary heir.

And from there, through the sons of Jacob—Judaism evolves. In general, Jewish tradition seems satisfied with this deception.

Although the biblical text is somewhat sympathetic to Esau, throughout history, our commentators have belittled him. Esau is presented as boorish, uneducated, impatient, and quite common.

And this bias has continued through history, as many Jewish parents have longed to realize the dream of raising “my son the doctor.”

God help the young person who aspires to becoming a taxi driver, artist, carpenter, electrician, sanitation worker or comedian.

Although many Sages note that perhaps it was better that Jacob—rather than Esau—took over the reins of the Jewish people, we need to stop ignoring or demeaning the Esaus who perform the messy jobs.

Rather than vilify Esau, as our tradition has for centuries, we need to thank those who work around us – as they slaughter our food, fix our potholes, remove our termites, change our oil, repair our wiring, or keep our restrooms clean.

And so, when we returned to LaGuardia yesterday, on Thanksgiving, as I exited the restroom after the flight, I pressed the green button on the wall to signify to some computer that I thought the restroom was well kept.

But I also took a moment to approach the fellow mopping the floor and said, “Thank you for keeping this restroom so clean for all of us.” He lightly smiled, nodded and continued working 

Somehow it felt like the right thing to do on Thanksgiving—to not only express gratitude for those sitting with us, but also for those whose hard—and sometimes dirty work—made it possible for the turkey, the sweet potatoes, and the cranberries to arrive at our table.

Over the centuries, Jewish tradition has applauded the life of Jacob.

During this time of giving thanks, we need to appreciate the Esaus of this world much more. For they make this time of gratitude possible.

From Esau, to the custodian at the Bell Center, and everyone in between, on this, the week of gratitude, let us appreciate hard work wherever it is found.

Those two words in whatever language mean so much.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784