Insights in Pirkei Avot: R. Tarfon's Educational Balance

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau,

R. Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is significant, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the master is pressuring.

He would also say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work nor are you free to desist from it. If you studied a good deal of Torah, you will be greatly rewarded. Your employer is reliable to pay for your work and know that the righteous receive their reward in the world to come. (Avot 2: 15-16)

R. Tarfon’s message preserves a delicate educational balance. On the one hand, we want to impress people with the magnitude of authentic responsibility. Our obligations of this world include a great deal of Torah to study, many mitzvot to perform, and much charity to donate. Even a relatively longer lifetime of, say, a hundred years may seem inadequate for the task. Therefore, R. Tarfon instructs us to get busy productively filling our time while trying to meet immense responsibilities.

Having acknowledged the importance of the above message, we also understand the need for a counterpoint. A solitary focus on the above can produce despair and fail to recognize genuine achievements along the way. Keep telling people that becoming learned demands mastering the entire Talmudic corpus and those struggling to finish a single chapter may give up. Those who finish a tractate will not feel some justified and religiously appropriate pride in their accomplishment. R. Tarfon teaches that we are not expected to complete the task.

He avoids the opposing extreme by asserting that the above does not free a person from increasing his efforts. Continued emphasis on lowering expectations can destroy standards and prevent any striving for greatness. We need not finish the task but neither can we desist from it.

Naftali Hertz Wessely, in his Yein Levanon, adds an insightful point about the relationship between the two mishnayot. The first employs a parable including several components, most of which are precisely accurate. Indeed, the work is great, the time is short, the workers are lazy, and the reward is significant. However, the image of a master pressuring needs some fine tuning.

Imagine a rich fellow who hires builders for a job while offering enormous compensation on condition that they finish the work in a day. This reflects the situation evoked by the original parable of R. Tarfon. Yet while God does make demands, He values fruitful endeavor even when the product remains unfinished. Most employers have a result orientated outlook which only sees value in a completed end. Hashem cares about process and effort and understands that different people have varying capabilities. Religious success does not depend upon completion but upon doing our utmost while achieving smaller victories along the way.

Wessely notes that the comparison of the parable breaks down in another way as well. Workers who finish the stricture usually collect their paycheck, go home, and relax. Religious striving knows no finished product since new horizons always beckon. After any success, we could develop more and push further. When R. Tarfon teaches that we are not free to desist, he points out how we never hand in our completed efforts and head off to religious retirement.

May we never cease shooting for the stars even as we joyfully experience more prosaic accomplishments.

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