He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward. And faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be in the World to Come.
This mishna closely resembles the previous, also authored by R. Tarfon. Last week we learned: “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.” We were given a sense of the urgency of life. Here too, R. Tarfon discusses the enormity of the tasks to be performed and the magnitude of Divine reward. Yet our mishna introduces a number of new ideas, and as we will see, a much broader and more profounder image of life will emerge.
This week R. Tarfon tells us that it is not upon us to complete the task. He also states that G-d is “faithful” to reward us — and that that reward may come only in the World to Come. I believe last week R. Tarfon was offering us a personal or individualistic outlook on life. We must see life as an ongoing procession of challenges and opportunities. There is much work to be done and much reward to be earned. The stakes are very high. Our lives should be one of boldly and eagerly rising to the many challenges before us.
Here R. Tarfon views life from a broader perspective — not the personal but the global one. It is true that we must work hard and accomplish mightily. There are very few of us who could not change the world for the better if we had only the vision and the drive. Yet we must not feel it all rests on our shoulders: the task is not ours to complete. We must make the effort, but whether or not our efforts will be successful is in the hands of G-d. We do our part — we are not free to idle — yet we rest assured that G-d is the ultimate arbiter of what is and what is not accomplished in this world. And if we are not successful, it is beyond our control, and most importantly: it is not our problem.
For this reason, our mishna seems to almost deemphasize reward — stating that we must be patient about it and not necessarily expect it in this world. Viewing the world from our own perspective, we might have expected that if we work so hard, we will enjoy the fruits of our labor. We would expect our deeds to make the world a visibly better place, and that the rewards which are our due be handed to us on a silver platter.
However, R. Tarfon, from the grander perspective of this mishna, warns us otherwise. We do our part, but we must accept that from our limited perspective we may not so quickly see the results. The gears of this world churn exceedingly slow. G-d has His plan and the world will certainly reach its zenith, but the march towards that goal may not even be perceptible to us. Many lifetimes may go by before we see the world move ahead. Many world events from our perspective may seem to be moving the world backwards rather than forwards. For we must simply accept that just as our own tasks are beyond our ability to control and complete, the results of our labor may be beyond our ability to comprehend. Every good deed brings the world forward — that we know for certain — but how precisely we may never know.
(I used to work in America for a large government research organization. The managers in those days used to talk about the importance of “incremental gains” in our projects. The meaning was that they had to show off to their managers new achievements on a steady and regular basis. A funded project can only be justified if the top brass can be convinced that good things are coming from it today, and that their investment is paying steady and regular dividends. (Managers are rather shortsighted, you know) 😉 For better or worse, we can expect no such steady returns on our Divine service. The reward will come alright, but we can never assume we will palpably see how much the world has improved as a result.)
This mishna thus provides us with a much broader and healthier perspective on life. We must achieve, yet our expectations must be realistic. We must face our tasks realizing that our own perspective is limited. We try our best, but we simply have to trust — and remain patient.
We are thus this week given a much broader and healthier perspective on life. We must achieve, yet our expectations must be more realistic. We must face our tasks realizing that our own perspective is limited. We try our best, but we simply have to trust — and remain patient.
It is worth emphasizing the significance of this mishna’s approach. Last week’s mishna painted an almost frightening image of life — so much to do, so little time, a pressing, almost terrifying G-d. It seemed to condemn man to a life of unendurable stress — something most of us have far too much of in our lives already. True, we are promised “the reward is great,” but the challenges and pressures are enormous. How can we not feel a sense of dread and inadequacy? And more important, is this really the image R. Tarfon wants us to carry with us? Are we supposed to go about life stressed out?
Here, however, R. Tarfon consoles us that the job is not ours to complete. I believe the meaning is not simply: “Don’t worry if you fail. So long as you tried your best G-d will reward you anyway.” The meaning is in fact far more profound.
When Moses and Aaron were first sent by G-d to Pharaoh to ask for the Jews’ release (they first asked for a three-day retreat into the desert), their first efforts at what we’d today call “shuttle diplomacy” were an abysmal failure. Rather than consenting in the slightest, Pharaoh concluded that the Hebrew slaves must have too much spare time on their hands and were thus dreaming up such wild ideas. He therefore commanded that the bondage become even more intense. (See Exodus Chapter 5.) (Why G-d willed it that matters got worse before they got better is a separate issue, beyond the scope of our current discussion. Suffice it to say that redemptions always have — and always will — work that way.)
Needless to say the morale of the people, initially quite receptive to Moses’ first words of prophecy, plummeted. They wanted nothing other than to be left alone to serve Pharaoh. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t rouse up the anti-Semites in parliament, giving them an excuse to despise us, a “sword in their hand to kill us” (5:21). And Moses himself returned to G-d and complained: “L-rd, why have You done bad to this nation? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done bad to this nation, and You have surely not saved Your nation” (vv. 22-23).
G-d’s response in essence was that we do not have to worry about how G-d will do His job. He has a plan for this world, and we are instrumental in bringing that plan to fulfillment. But we — even Moses — should not expect to understand every detail of G-d’s inscrutable ways. Our job is not to “complete the task” — to take control of the situation and see to it that G-d brings the world to fruition. It is simply — and this is not so simple — to fulfill G-d’s commandments and let Him do the rest. If we try to play god, if we take it upon ourselves to save the world — to “complete the task” — then everything becomes permitted. The grand and glorious ends of bringing the world to its fruition would easily outweigh any injustices and atrocities committed along the way.
It has been said that the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of religion (the Crusades being but one shining example, the WTC attack being another. But the list is in fact endless. Recall the “religiously-motivated” assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.) We have a crucial role — a pivotal role — in world history. But it is only a role; G-d is the Director. Bottom line, we must follow the script handed to us — the commandments of the Torah. G-d alone can do the rest.
Traditional Judaism is continuously confronted with this type of issue — how can we spread the faith and maintain the allegiance of the masses? Perhaps we should modernize our practices and have them conform to contemporary attitudes of ethics and political correctness? Maybe in order to increase synagogue attendance we should compromise here and there, bringing ourselves in tune with the times? Let them drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, for otherwise they won’t come at all — and it’s our job to save them, one way or the other.
To this our mishna responds: Our job is not to complete the task — nor to save the world. Says G-d, “You just do your job — fulfill the mitzvos (commandments) how and when I said. Will they bring the world to its fruition? Yes. How will that happen? That’s My problem.” It’s not our job to worry about G-d’s problems. To worry about G-d’s honor and to keep His mitzvos — yes. To be aware of the significance, the magnitude of our deeds — yes. To understand how our actions and our suffering are a fulfillment of G-d’s purpose in the world — maybe, if we’re lucky. But it simply does not hinge upon that. “Know that the payment of the reward of the righteous is in the next world.” This world is to do and perhaps to be unwitting pawns in G-d’s Master Plan. In the next world it will all make sense.
To some extent, the above is based on a lecture I heard from my teacher, R. Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory.
With this and with G-d’s help, we have completed the second chapter.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.