June 25, 2024
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 “רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק: (אבות ב:טו)
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. אִם לָמַדְתָּ תוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, נוֹתְנִים לְךָ שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה. וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֵּם לְךָ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךָ. וְדַע מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא:” (אבות ב:טז)

Towards the end of Avot’s second perek, Rabbi Tarfon makes two statements about the effort expected from us in this world.


A Challenging Mission

His first statement1 delineates the context of our lives. The Chasid Yaavetz gives the background to this statement by identifying three reasons people fail to accomplish what they are meant to in their lifetimes: They overestimate the amount of time they have, underestimate the amount to be accomplished or fail to appreciate the importance of the task. Rabbi Tarfon responds to all three reasons by emphasizing that “the ‘day’ (a metaphor for life) is short, there is much work to do, the workers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master (Hashem) has high expectations.”

Each of Rabbi Tarfon’s five points are independently important.


Short on Time

He begins with the length of the “day.” Earlier on, Rabbi Eliezer taught the importance of taking advantage of each day of life when he urged doing teshuva the day before we die. As this can be any day, we should do teshuva daily.2

If the “day” were long, we would have lots of time to accomplish our objectives. In truth, though, our lives fly by. Tehillim compares man’s life to a shadow: man — like a shadow — disappears quickly.3

The Chofetz Chaim compared the way we experience life to the way people inscribe a postcard. Because the postcard initially has lots of blank space, people begin their writing with regular-sized letters. As they get to the end of the card (when little space remains) people often feel like they have much more to say and are forced to use much smaller letters in an attempt to fit it all in. Sadly, many people live life the same way. While young, with our whole lives ahead of ourselves, we often lack the urgency to maximize our time. Only once the end is near, people scramble to “get it all in.”

Of course, we would be wise to appreciate the time we have at an earlier stage. The Chiddushei HaRim explains the custom to give a chatan (groom) a gold watch this way. The watch should remind us to appreciate the value of time, life’s most precious commodity.


The Significant Task

The challenge of the shortness of life is compounded by the enormity of the task. This is Rebbi Tarfon’s next point: “there is much work to do.” The meforshim on the Mishna explain that this pertains particularly to Torah learning, which is described as “longer than (all) land and wider than the seas.”4

What makes matters worse is the fact that we do not appreciate the importance of the task at hand. The midrash5 tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu fasted and did not sleep for the entirety of the 120-day period he was receiving the Torah. His mindset was like that of a minister given permission by the king to keep all the gold coins he could count within a limited period of time. Moshe realized the golden opportunity he had and did not want to squander even a single minute.

Rabbi Tarfon taught that for us, like for Moshe, “the reward is great.” Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to perform meaningful actions or study the Torah that Mishlei6 describes as more rewarding than money and any other commodity. These pursuits give meaning to our lives and are the only things we take with us from this world.7


Doing Our Part

Rabbi Tarfon’s second Mishna counterbalances his first.8 He begins by emphasizing that we are “not expected to finish the work.” This is his response to the erroneous conclusion we might reach from the previous Mishna: if the amount that needs to be accomplished so exceeds the time we have available, maybe we should not even begin the task. To this, Rabbi Tarfon responds that we are not expected to finish it all.

Though we are not expected to finish, we “are not free to decide to desist from it.” Life is not just an opportunity; it comes with the expectation that we maximize it. As Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Rabbi Tarfon’s rabbi) taught just a few Mishnayot earlier:9 “Im lamadta Torah harbei, al tachazik tovah latzmecha, ki l’kach notzarta.” To paraphrase, “If you learn much Torah, don’t ‘pat yourself on the back.’” You are merely fulfilling the mission you were created to accomplish. Many people see Torah learning and maximizing our time as a matter of personal choice. In truth, they are the destiny we are required to realize.10

May Rabbi Tarfon’s teachings help us appreciate how short life is, how much we need to accomplish, and what is truly valuable. Though we know that one lifetime is not enough to accomplish it all, may we embrace our destiny and commit ourselves to the mission of maximizing our lives.

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Masechet Avot 2:15.

2 Shabbat 153a quotes Rabbi Eliezer’s explanation of this implication of his statement in his response to a question from his talmidim.

3 Sefer Tehillim 144:4. Bereishit Rabbah (96:2) sharpens this point by explaining the pasuk to mean that our lives are like the shadow created by a bird that moves with the speed of the bird in flight.

4 Sefer Iyov 11:9. The Ohr Zarua (Chelek Aleph, Alpha Beta 19) records a midrash which quotes Rabbi Eliezer as saying that “even if all the seas were ink, all the reeds were pens, all the people were writers, and the sky and the earth were parchment, he would still not be able to record all of his Torah.”

5 Shemot Rabbah 47:7.

6 Sefer Mishlei 3:14.

7 Masechet Avot 6:9. At the end of Avot’s first perek (1:13), Hillel takes this idea a step further. He emphasizes that while we are in this world we are expected to constantly maximize our efforts, so much so that if we fail to do so, we are taken from the world.

8 Masechet Avot 2:16.

9 Masechet Avot 2:8.

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