Ethics – Now & Then 32 – Avot 2:20

Avot 2:20  Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the work is great, the
                  laborers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the
                  house is insistent.

Rabbi Tarfon says:

In verses 10-19 the focus was on the sayings of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five major students; Chapter 2 ends, however, with two verses that quote Rabbi Tarfon. Both are related to the work ethic and might well rank in the top most quoted of the tractate. Rabbi Tarfon (Tryphon, Gr.) was a disciple of the learned and pious Yehudah haNasi. He was recognized as a great scholar and his opinion on any matter always was sought first. He also was noted for being modest and unassuming and was highly regarded for his kindness and generosity. [1]

Tarfon was a mentor and colleague of the renowned Rabbi Akivah, who later supported the military uprising against Rome led by Bar Kochba that met with catastrophic defeat at the battle of Bethar (c.135 CE). In the wake of Roman vengeance, thousands were killed and Akivah suffered a particularly cruel execution. Facing the reality of widespread and violent reprisals, Rabbi Tarfon was extremely wary of any messianic figure, probably including Yeshua, and denounced as heretics those who turned away from worship of the One God of Israel in order to follow a new Savior. He is quoted as saying, “If a man pursued me to slay me… I would take refuge in a house of idolatry and not in one of their houses: for idol worshippers do not recognize the Holy One, Blessed be He, and thus deny Him, but they recognize Him and deny Him.” [2]

Tarfon was very wealthy and owned many fields, orchards and vineyards. He thus employed many laborers, whom he treated well and gave fair wages. The Talmud records an incident of a time he visited one of his less frequented orchards and ate some of the fruit. The watchman did not recognize him and mistook him for a trespasser and thief. He apprehended him and beat him mercilessly, then tied him in a sack intending to throw him in the river. Rabbi Tarfon called out and when the watchman realized it was his master, he freed him and fell at his feet begging forgiveness. Rabbi Tarfon responded, “Believe me, with every blow you gave me, I promptly forgave you.” [3] Perhaps this encounter with possible death heightened his already great sensitivity to the plight of others, for he also is quoted as saying, “I doubt whether there is anyone in this generation who is qualified to rebuke others. Everyone has defects of their own.” [4]

The day is short, the work is great…

Ha’yom katzer, ha’melacha merubah… Verse 20 succinctly sums up our very human predicament. To consider the immense challenge of life, with the infinite number of opportunities and possibilities it offers, becomes a daunting task when we consider our physical limitations and finite condition. The Psalmist expresses a cry of despair, “Let me know, O Lord, my end and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am. Behold… my short existence, or decaying earth-time (cheldi), is as nothing before You!” (Ps. 39:5-6, Heb.)

Rabbi Irving Bunim points out the interesting fact that the word cheldi shares the same Hebrew root as the word choled – weasel. He describes how the weasel “…scampers about at great speed, burrows in the ground and dislikes the light.” He then draws the comparison, “Man’s entire career on earth resembles the weasel’s course: we constantly rush about, burrow in the earth, and hide our deeds from the public eye. The weasel also collects all kinds of bits of scraps and junk that it never really uses. Do not people do the same?” [5]

King David deduces, “…Certainly every man [even] at his best state [is] but vapor [chevel – a vanity, meaningless]. Selah.” When we consider the sum total of our natural time on earth, it can appear disappointing, even meaningless, in the grand scheme of things. Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that “the day” is short. We need to keep our primary focus on each day, with the understanding that we then can gratefully “…declare Thy loving-kindness in the morning and Thy faithfulness in the night.” [6] For, as King David also declares in Psalm 39, “And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.” Our faith, our hope, the very meaning of all we do is in the Lord and, as Yeshua exemplified and taught, in doing the will of our Father in Heaven.

Yeshua also expressed to the disciples, with the likely intimation that they should learn from Him and do the same. “I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (Jn.9:4). In the bright days of life, when we are healthy and in a pleasant position, we should purpose to make the most of our time in service to our King. No one knows the length of these bright “days,” nor the length of the “nights” that will befall us, the dark times of suffering and tribulation when work is limited. When the night is upon us, however, we can endure in faith, doing all we can while fully trusting in His great faithfulness.

…the laborers are lazy,

Laziness can take a debilitating toll, either as a natural inclination in man or as a result of negativity when, in the face of the enormity of the task, one arrives at the conclusion: “What’s the use of trying?” Another factor, particularly in youth, could be lack of awareness that, in reality, a lifetime is short. Consequently, a young person, and often one not-so-young, feels he can take his time and wait to tackle the serious tasks of life “later” or when he is motivated and “feels like it.” As a result, although one can remain very active in non-essential areas, one can be “lazy” in the very matters that have eternal value.

…the reward is great,

Interestingly, based on the Scripture verse Exodus 34:7 that describes how God visits the iniquity of fathers on their descendants for three to four generations and the measure of good reward to thousands, which means at least two thousand generations, the Sages formulated a basic principle of reward and punishment. “The measure of good [reward] is greater than the measure of punishment [for evil], by a ratio of 500 to 1.” [7]

This encourages us in the performance of any mitzvah, good deed. When we see the punishment recorded for any transgression, for example, theft, mistreatment of the poor, idle gossip or cruelty, we understand that when we choose to do the opposite, positive action in each instance, the reward will be five hundred times better and greater!

…and the Master of the house is insistent.

Our God is a generous Giver and great in His blessing and reward for our service to Him. He also is pressing in His demands, knowing how vital each one is in His purposes in the earth. The full importance and meaning of each task He sets us, His servants, is known only to Him. Only He can prescribe the nature and timing of the task and only He can evaluate our performance of it.

The Hebrew word for ‘work’ is avodah, which means both work and worship. When we undertake to do all that we do “for the sake of Heaven” and tackle each next thing, whether big or small, to the best of our ability with our given and sometimes limited resources and talents, we can fully trust that our true Master in Heaven is storing our reward, our just ‘wages,’ for when our avodah-work on earth is done and we stand in avodah-worship in the glory of His Presence.

Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan records two further sayings of Rabbi Tarfon that relate to the importance of work. “Man dies only from idleness, not from working.” Also, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, did not bring His Sh’chinah (Divine Presence) to dwell on the people Israel until they had done the work, for it is said: ‘Let them build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’” (Ex.25:8). [8]

1. Talmud Yerushalmi, Yevamoth IV,12; Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 31b
2. Talmud Bavli, Shabbath 116b; Kiddushin 31b
3. Talmud Yerushalmi, Sheviis 4, quoted in Rabbi A. Twerskiʼs Visions of the Fathers; 135
4. Ibid; Arachin 16b
5. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol.1; 207
6. Psalm 92:3
7. Tosefta, Sotah IV, 1; cf. Rashi on Ex. 34:7
8. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol.1; 218

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