Back in the days when I turned a wrench full-time, I'd occasionally encounter someone who'd come into the shop and ask for free or discounted labor.
They dared to ask because they knew or perceived that I was gay, working class, and/or otherwise sympathetic to the plight of the working poor.
They ask me, "hey, would you be willing to help me out here? Sister to sister, you know... we have to stick together..."
In every case, I felt duty-bound to turn them down. Because we'd had numerous meetings (remember, it was a cooperative shop) about how discounting our labor was the worst possible thing we could do, that it lowered the value of that labor in the customer's eyes. And I believed that.
And, being a mechanic with a special set of skills, I still believe that today.
If you want to volunteer at a skill you're professionally trained in, that is your choice and I will support it wholeheartedly. There are times when I choose to volunteer my skills and time to help others, and I'm glad I can do that.
But if you make your living doing a skilled trade and you are asked, begged, wheedled or otherwise guilt-tripped into doing it for cheap or free by an individual, business or organization that can afford to pay you and chooses not to, then you have every right to stand your ground and say no.
Saying yes in such a situation serves no one but whomever is doing the asking.
They may try to sugarcoat it by saying YOU'RE the only one they want to do whatever it is.
That makes it even worse, because now they're not simply devaluing the work you do, but they're devaluing YOU, YOUR skills, and YOUR time. And that makes mutual respect a hard thing to sustain in that relationship.
Saying no, however, means you run the risk of not only professional but personal isolation, especially in a smaller community where the jobs and social/communal options are all fewer.
At what point do you allow yourself to be guilt-tripped?
Is the guilt warranted? Should you feel guilty for not giving it away for free when it's how you earn a living? Or is the guilt misplaced?
At what point do you put your foot down?
Are you suffering from delusions of overblown ego because you insist on being paid for the use of your professional skills? Are you guilty of not taking one for the side? Are you being selfish?
The answer, I suspect will depend on what you do for a living; who's asking you to do it for free, and whether or not your chosen profession is widely respected and compensated accordingly in this society.
Before you blame capitalism for this mess, remember that we are all operating in this system.
NEWSFLASH: The Torah is an inherently capitalist document.
Its brand of capitalism is more benign, as it makes room for a healthy dose of empathy; but it's still document based on people having to earn their living through the work of their hands (or, in the 21st century, their fingertips perhaps), and the reality that some of us will earn more than others. That said, it also cautions against withholding wages and mistreating those who work for you, because work is still a human enterprise and we are required to treat each other with respect and dignity.
So, as I read post after post from fellow bike mechanics who feel they're underpaid and Jewish professionals who feel undervalued and taken for granted, and after considering my own professional struggles over the last several years, I think it's worth pondering these questions through the lens of Torah.
I'd greatly welcome suggestions for commentary and books that might shed some light on this.
Meanwhile, I'm going to sit in front of my fan, drink buckets of ice water and melt in the heat until sundown.
Happy Friday and Shabbat Shalom.