Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once revealed what he called a great secret – people eat for free and they work for free. He explained this with the following parable.
There was a wealthy man who was renowned for his hospitality. He would happily and generously provide all guests that came his way with the finest food, drink and lodgings, leaving them content and satisfied.
Not far from his home, lived another very wealthy person; a great miser who wouldn’t even give a slice of bread to the poor.
Once, a pauper who hadn’t eaten for a few days, heard about the wealthy donor with the compassionate heart, so he dragged his feet to his door to ask for a meal. But, as the saying goes, “poverty chases after the poor,” and instead of arriving at the door of the compassionate donor, the pauper erred and accidentally came to the home of the stingy miser. The poor man bowed before the landlord, lavishly praised him, and pleaded for a meal. The astonished miser realized that the pauper had made a mistake, and decided to take advantage of the situation.
“Of course, I’ll feed you!” he said, “But first I have some errands for you to do.” Following the man’s instructions, the pauper chopped wood, drew water, and did other difficult chores until he was utterly exhausted.
Finally, the miser said, “Okay, now it’s time for you to have your meal.” Pointing to the home of his compassionate neighbor, he said, “Just go there and someone will serve you.” The pauper didn’t realize that he’d been fooled. He thought that both houses belonged to the same owner and that it was the accepted, general custom to work in the first house before being served in the other.
As soon as he entered the second home, butlers greeted him, washed him, and brought him to a lavish table were many different foods and delicacies were served. They treated him like a nobleman.
As he was eating his meal, he moaned, “It’s true I had to work so hard first…but it was worth it!”
The curious master of the house asked him, “My good friend, you said you worked hard for this meal. For whom did you work? It wasn’t for me!”
The pauper told him that he’d worked at the neighboring mansion, and the kind philanthropist immediately understood what had happened. “My friend, I’m sorry to tell you, but you worked for free and you’re eating for free. Where you worked, you didn’t eat. And where you eat, you didn’t work!”
Rebbe Nachman said that the same thing occurs in regards to our livelihood. We work and we think that it is our work that is earning us our livelihood, but actually, our income comes from another source; it is a gift from Hashem. “Where we work we do not eat, and where we eat, we do not work.” This is a great secret of life. While it appears that our work provides our livelihood, it is really provided by Hashem.
Of course, while Hashem is our Provider, we are still obligated to do hishtadlus and to work for our livelihood. And while the hishtadlus doesn’t essentially support us, it does serve several other important purposes, as the holy sefarim explain.
The Mesilas Yesharim (21) writes: “…Man should theoretically be able to sit idly, and the livelihood that Hashem ordained for him should come to him effortlessly. However the Torah states, ‘By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread.’ This ‘curse’ [that mankind received after Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge] requires everyone to exert some form of effort, or hishtadlus for their livelihood. It has been decreed by the exalted King, and is a tax that all mankind must pay, which can never be evaded…”
The Chovas Halevovos (Sha’ar haBitochon 3) teaches us two other reasons why we must work: (1) To test our integrity, as the workplace constantly requires us to choose honesty or its opposite. (2) To make life more difficult. History has proven that in the generations where life was too “easy” and there was an abundance of easy comfort and pleasure, people began to forget Hashem. This is what happened to the generation of the flood (at the time of Noach) and other times as well. Therefore one must work for his livelihood, so life won’t be too easy, and we will remember our Creator.