Rebbe Tarfon says: The day is short, and task is immense, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Proprietor is demanding.
(The Maharal understands that the subject of this Mishna deals with the task of studying Torah, which is also the subject of the next Mishna, which teaches us that “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task.” With all the difficulties that exist in understanding that statement — which we will deal with when we study it — the Maharal uses what we are taught there as the basis for the first problem that he raises in this Mishna.)
Why should it bother us that the day is short and the Torah (the study of which is being referred to as the “task”) is vast? Rebbe Tarfon is about to teach us in the next Mishna that it is not incumbent upon you to FINISH the work! (Who cares if the day is short? Whatever we accomplish seems to be OK! )
Another difficulty is the seeming redundancy of the lesson. If we are taught that the task is immense, then we know that the day must short, RELATIVE to the amount of work that needs to be done. (To say that the time is short has relevance only in relation to the amount of work that needs to be accomplished in that time. Ten minutes could be a very long time for one person to wash two plates. Yet for that same person to wash a few thousand dishes, even a full eight hour workday would be a very short time).
A further redundancy is the statement “the Proprietor is demanding.” If the intention is to teach us that G-d, Who is the Proprietor, wants us to be constantly learning Torah, this has already been implied in the statement “the task is immense.” If the proprietor isn’t demanding that the work be done, then it can’t be said about the task that it is immense!
Finally, what lesson is being taught with the statement “The workers are lazy”? (The Tanna certainly isn’t into name- calling!) It would have been more appropriate to instruct us directly and simply, “Do not be lazy”!
Rebbe Tarfon’s basic lesson is to teach man that he should not direct his attention towards “time-wasters,” but rather towards Torah study. Due to the vastness of the task with which he is charged , the task of studying and knowing the Torah, one who spends his time on trivial matters is considered irresponsible and negligent.
Even though we have been taught (Berachoth 5a) “One who does more and one who does less [are equivalent to each other] as long as one’s intentions are for the sake of Heaven,” in addition to being taught that “it is not incumbent on you to complete the task” (both statements implying that we don’t judge a person by the results) these refer only to a person who is conscientious and not negligent. A person must be involved in Torah with the level of diligence one would have AS IF he was trying to complete it.
Therefore, a person who is mindful of the task: a) in relation to the “Proprietor” (G-d); b) in relation to the task itself (enormous); c) in relation to the nature of man (innately “lazy,” resistant to exerting himself); d) in relation to the time available (limited); he will not spend time on trivial matters, but will undertake his task with alacrity and diligence. A person is responsible to work in a way that indicates at least an attempt to finish the task. Otherwise, he is considered careless and negligent in the performance of his responsibilities.
Due to the limited amount of time available to man, we are taught “the day is short” since man’s days flit by like a shadow. (This alludes to the verse in Iyov 8:9, “Our days on earth are like a shadow.” Man’s time is inherently short, independent of the task.)
In addition to the limitation of available time, the task of learning Torah is itself inherently immense, due to the unlimited nature of the Torah. This was the intention of King David, when he wrote (Tehillim 119:96) “To all [material] goals have I seen an end…” Material things have boundaries, and man has the ability to delimit them, have full access to them, and complete them. But Torah, which is purely of an intellectual/spiritual nature, has no boundaries or limits which are accessible to man. Therefore, even if man could live for “all the time in the world” (as long as the world exists) the task of completing the unlimited Torah is impossible for him to accomplish, due to nature of man’s existence in this world, which is a limited physical one. The intention of the Tanna’s lesson “The task is immense” is to teach us the fundamental, infinite nature of the task, after having taught us the lesson about the limited nature of time.
We are also taught that “the Proprietor is demanding,” which is a lesson about the nature of G-d, Who gave us the Torah, and His demand that our study of that Torah be done with alacrity. As a non-corporeal reality, G-d transcends the material dimension, so He is not burdened with the limitations of time that are a property of matter. It is only man, operating as a material being within the constraints of time, that is afflicted with “laziness,” resistance to overcoming the inertia of that material nature.
The Tanna is teaching us that our study of Torah as service of G-d has to be performed in a way that is aligned with the Divine reality that we are serving. Having received the Divine Torah, it is appropriate for man to study that Torah in a way that is consistent with the nature of G-d, unburdened (as much as possible) by the limits of time and the inertia of the material .
Teaching that “the workers are lazy” is the contrast to the fact that “the Proprietor is demanding.” G-d, as the Proprietor, transcends any limitations of the material, while man, as the worker, is rooted in and completely subjected the limitations of the material. Because of his material reality, his ability to act is limited by the need to overcome physical inertia and the limits of time, which is the cause of his natural “laziness.” (Man is not being castigated by saying “the worker is lazy.” Rather, as is true in the earlier parts of the Mishna, the Tanna is teaching a dimension of reality. In this case, it is teaching the essence of man as being limited by inertia and time, which he finds difficult to overcome.)
The Mishna is not demanding that man do more than he is capable of doing. However, since the nature of a) the available time, b) the task at hand, c) the Proprietor and His demands , and d) the worker, all make it impossible for man to completely do justice to his assignment (of studying and knowing the Torah) if these limitations are compounded by man devoting time and attention to “time-wasters,” which would be completely irresponsible behavior. How can man consider wasting time on excessive eating and drinking, and on the range of trivial matters that could easily divert him, when the task of learning Torah is so immense and his nature is not naturally aligned with the task. Rather, man should study Torah with diligence and alacrity, avoiding any time-wasters, acting as if his goal was to complete the study of the entire Torah (even though it is not possible to actually accomplish this goal).
In summary, when a person has an immense task, when the time available is limited, and if the proprietor is demanding completion of the task, he certainly acts with maximum diligence and alacrity. Because we have been taught (in the previous Mishna) “Be diligent in the study of Torah” the Tanna now concludes with a lesson about the fundamental challenges that must be overcome in accomplishing that goal.