Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the work is abundant, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. Ethics of the Fathers, 2:20
A king and his entourage, traveling through a foreign land far from their kingdom, were set upon by marauders intent upon robbing and killing the entire party. As his officers fought to the death, the king managed to escape, only to find himself lost and helpless in the wilderness. With neither food nor water, the king quickly grew weak and feared that he would not last much longer.
There seemed little hope, until a nomad happened upon the king, revived him with food and drink, then led him back to civilization where he could arrange transport back to his kingdom. The king wished to reward his rescuer, and having nothing of value to give him and lacking a common language, he finally convinced the nomad to accompany him back to his kingdom. Once there, the king led his rescuer to the treasure room, handed him a large sack, and indicated that he should take whatever he liked.
The nomad looked at the king with disbelief. I saved this man's life, even escorted him back to his country, and now the man had the audacity to put me to work! The nomad wanted to march right out of the room, but figured that this man, obviously rich and powerful, would become angry and throw him in jail. Best to play along, he decided, picking up a few of the rocks that filled the room and tossing them into the bag, but I am not going to work too hard. After a couple of handfuls, he sat down and refused to do anymore work.
An hour or so later the king returned. He gave the nomad a peculiar look, seeing that he had collected so little from the room, but the king did not seem angry. He then set the nomad on his way home and, to the nomad's increasing wonder, left him in possession of the bag of rocks he had begun to fill.
When the nomad returned to his own country, he happened upon one of his landsmen and immediately began to recount his peculiar encounter with the mad king. His companion, somewhat more worldly, asked to look at the "rocks" he had collected.
"You fool!" he exclaimed. "These are diamonds. Each of them is worth a fortune."
"Then I'm rich!" cried the nomad.
"Perhaps so," replied the other. "But you have only a fraction of what could have been yours had you worked diligently during the time you had in the treasure room."
"The day is short..."
Life in this world is but a few short years compared with the eternity of the World to Come. When we are young we imagine our years to be endless, but as we grow older, as we watch our children grow up and move on with their own lives, as we feel the opportunity of youth slip away though our fingers, we lament how poorly we have taken advantage of the time accorded us. Yes, the days of our lives are short indeed, and there are few tragedies greater than looking back across seven or eight or nine decades and wishing that we had spent them better.
"The work is abundant..."
The world is littered with diamonds of incalculable value. These are the mitzvoth of the Torah, the acts of kindness, of virtue, of righteousness, and of sanctity by which we earn for ourselves eternal reward in the World to Come. It is a never-ending task, a vocation without limit, to acquire these priceless gems by following the timeless traditions of the Jewish people. And like the nomad in the king's treasure room who thought himself rich for having picked up a few stones, the one who shirks this labor will ultimately discover the inadequacy of the few prizes he has collected.
"The workers are lazy..."
There are many kinds of laziness, and aversion to physical labor is not the worst of them. True, almost all of us waste countless hours of our lives procrastinating, taking short cuts that end up being long cuts, and searching for our glasses or our car keys because we lack the discipline to put them away properly.
Even worse, however, is intellectual laziness. We live in a world so multifaceted, so richly fascinating in its wonders and miracles, so replete with scientific and biological anomalies that our minds should spin contemplating the infinite complexity and beauty of nature. For this reason was King David called the sweet singer of Israel: through the composition of his Psalms he proclaimed the divine harmony that arranges all the miracles of creation into a single spiritual symphony, and he forever praised the Conductor responsible for their arrangement. God hides His face, but He hides where He can easily be found, if we only summon up the resolve to look for Him.
Perhaps worst of all is moral laziness. The superficiality, political correctness, and moral equivalence that define so much of today's conventional "wisdom" turn criminals into victims, terrorists into freedom fighters, even Jews into Nazis. Intellectual discipline first requires intellectual integrity, the willingness to care about finding the truth and the willingness to recognize truth, even when it flies in the face of current intellectual and moral fads.
"the reward is great..."
The reward for a good life is a good life, both in this world and in the next. The satisfaction of knowing that one's life contains ultimate spiritual meaning far surpasses any sort of temporal physical or intellectual pursuit. The commitment of one's existence to a higher purpose makes life in this world not only tolerable but truly fulfilling. It produces a joy and an intense psychological pleasure that the most self-indulgent hedonist cannot begin to imagine.
But even this fulfillment is only a drop in the ocean compared to the final reward that awaits us in the World to Come. And, lest one question whether that final reward truly does await him or is truly worth the effort...
"the Master of the house is insistent."
How many of us remember our parents not letting us go outdoors in April without a sweater, grounding us for a D on our report cards, refusing our pleas to quit piano lessons, or withholding our allowance until we cleaned up our rooms? How many of us have become the same kind of parents?
Parents don't insist standards from their children because they are cruel, because they are power-crazed, or because they want revenge for what their parents did to them. They insist on standards because they love their children, because they want what's best for them, because they want them to learn responsibility so that they will grow into happy, successful adults.
So, too, the Almighty, our Father in heaven, created the world so that we, His children, can work to earn the eternal reward He has prepared for us in the World to Come. And yes, He is insistent, for His love for us is boundless and timeless. There is no other purpose for creation, and the Creator will not allow us, His creations, to casually discard the days of our lives without pricking our consciences and prodding us back toward the true work of our days.
Yes, Rabbi Tarfon teaches, the day is short, the work is hard, and we are often lazy. But we can overcome these obstacles if we remember the great reward that awaits us in this world and the next, and if we remember that there is no other enduring purpose for our existence.