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Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the work is plentiful, the laborers are indolent, the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent (Avot 2:15).

He used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; if you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labor; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come (Avot 2:16).

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

His first statement delineates the context of our lives. The Chassid Yaavetz gives the background to this statement by identifying three reasons people fail to accomplish what they are meant to do in their lifetime – they overestimate the amount of time they have, underestimate the amount to be accomplished, or fail to appreciate the importance of the task. Rebbi 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 Rebbi Tarfon’s five points is independently important.

 

Short on Time

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

If the “day” were long, we would have lots of time to accomplish our objectives. In truth, though, our lives fly by. Tehillim (144:4) compares man’s life to a shadow: man, like a shadow, disappears quickly.

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 us, we often lack the urgency to maximize our time. Only once the end is near do 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 commentaries on the Mishnah explain that this pertains particularly to Torah learning, which is described as “longer than (all) land and wider than the seas” (Iyov 11:9).

What makes matters worse is the fact that we do not appreciate the importance of the task at hand. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 47:7) 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 time. Moshe realized the golden opportunity he had and did not want to squander even a single minute.

Rebbi Tarfon (Avot 6:9) 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 Mishlei (3:14) 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.

 

Doing Our Part

Rebbi Tarfon’s second Mishnah counterbalances his first. 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 Mishnah: If the amount that needs to be accomplished so exceeds the time we have available that maybe we should not even begin the task. To this, Rebbi 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; the opportunity comes with an expectation that we maximize it. As Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Rebbi Tarfon’s rebbi) taught just a few mishnayot earlier (Avot 2:8): 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.

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.