Winning the Race: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21
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Winning the Race: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21

Winning the Race: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21

In spiritual pursuits, the very act of trying counts as success.

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[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it. If you have learned a lot of Torah, much reward has been prepared for you, and your Employer can be trusted to compensate you for your labor. But know that the reward of the righteous is reserved for the World to Come.
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21

It seems unnecessary for Moses to have spent 40 days and 40 nights atop Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Presumably, God could have given him the tablets, said Mazal Tov! and sent him back down the mountain. Indeed, had Moses returned quicker, the Jews would never have committed the sin of the golden calf, the spies would not have rejected the Land of Israel, Moses would have led the Jews into the land, driven out the Canaanites, built the Temple, ushered in the messianic era, and saved his people from 33 centuries of trials and tribulations.

So what took so long?

If all of God's Law were contained in the written Torah, then God could truly have dispatched Moses with a quick l'chaim. The Torah, however, contains an essential oral component. It is this part of the Torah that provides the details that enable us to observe the written word.

What are the practices and restrictions of Shabbat? What are the protocols and jurisdictions of Jewish courts? What constitutes marriage and divorce? How are animals slaughtered? These are the mechanics without which practical Judaism is impossible, and they lie within the oral tradition. It was this body of information that Moses had to learn during his 960 uninterrupted hours on Sinai.

The sages teach us that after laboring for 40 days to master the intricacies of the Oral Torah, Moses had still not succeeded in absorbing them. Finally, the Almighty said to him, "No matter -- I will give you understanding even though you have failed to acquire it on your own."

But if Moses were unable to grasp the totality of the Oral Torah, and if God knew that he would not succeed, why put Moses through the effort of trying to accomplish an impossible task?

You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it

If an Olympic athlete runs a great race but stumbles at the finish line, all his training and exertion are for nothing. If a law student studies hours and hours but fails his final exams, his efforts were futile. If an executive prepares arduously for a presentation but loses the account, all his preparation was wasted time. If a counselor invests hours trying to reconcile an estranged couple who eventually opt for divorce, all his good intentions count for nothing.

We never know what we are able to achieve until we try.

Some things are simply impossible. However, we never know what we are able to achieve until we try. How many races have been won by athletes dismissed by "experts" as unfit to compete? How many victories have gone to underdogs from whom no one expected greatness? If we give up before we start, we never give ourselves the chance to succeed.

Moreover, Torah is not like other enterprises that depend solely upon a successful outcome. Every word of Torah learned and every mandate of the Divine Will fulfilled binds a Jewish soul more closely to the Infinite Soul of its Creator.

Herein lies the essence of Rabbi Tarfon's message. Can we all become sages? Unlikely. Can we all attain the highest levels of piety and saintliness? Perhaps not. But none of us knows what we can achieve until we try and, even more important, the very act of trying counts as success itself!

If you have learned a lot of Torah, much reward has been prepared for you

Why did the Almighty create the world? It was His supreme act of love. By creating our physical world He created as well the opportunity for us to earn eternal life in the World to Come. And since reward earned is far more valuable than reward undeserved, God hid Himself behind the veil of nature so that we might be free to choose whether to follow the path of good as defined by His Torah or reject His ways for the path of evil or, at best, of apathy.

The more a Jew involves himself in Torah, the more he awakens his own supernal soul to the spiritual energy of Creation. The more he recreates himself as a spiritual and not a physical being, the more he acquires the spiritual sensitivity to enjoy his reward in the next world, the reward that has already been prepared for him as God's greatest gift. Like a reserved seat on an airplane, the reward of every person awaits him. But just as a reserved seat profits the ticket holder only if he gets himself on the plane, so too can we enjoy our reward only if we earn it.

... and your Employer can be trusted to compensate you for your labor. But know that the reward of the righteous is reserved for the World to Come.

As physical beings, we interpret reality according to our physical senses. How often through history have people "disproved" the existence of the Almighty with the argument, "How could God let that happen?"

It's a good question. Why should the righteous suffer? Why should the wicked prosper? These are complex questions, but the answer begins with our mishna.

Why does a loving parent not give a child everything the child wants? Why is a concerned teacher strict with students entrusted to his care? Why does a surgeon charged with Hippocratic oath plunge a knife into the chest of his patient? Is it not self-evident that the most profound acts of love often require a measure of pain?

If we judge reality by what we see superficially, it's easy to determine that there is no judge and no justice. But if we look deeper, if we consider that a parent who loves his child can be trusted to do what is truly best for his child, then we can also appreciate that we can trust our Father in heaven, even when, from our limited perspective, we can't fathom the meaning behind world events. Like a benevolent employer who gives his workers the greatest gift of charity -- the opportunity to support themselves and earn their own livelihood -- the Almighty can be trusted to compensate us for our virtue with the eternal life that will be our ultimate reward.

Published: January 7, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) steve bell, January 15, 2006 12:00 AM

what an amazing commentary...tell me more

By creating our physical world He created as well the opportunity for us to earn eternal life in the World to Come. And since reward earned is far more valuable than reward undeserved, God hid Himself behind the veil of nature so that we might be free to choose whether to follow the path of good

(2) Anonymous, January 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Sometimes it is hard to keep the faith

"Employer can (sometimes) be trusted to compensate you for your labor. But know that the reward of the righteous is reserved for the World to Come."
When those with a scholarly training say there is "no world to come" promised in the Torah, is shakes my soul, for I have not been rewarded here in this life for all of the trials and tribulations, study, and attempts to do as many good deeds as I can. How can one keep a smile and positive attitude if the world around one is harsh and difficult? One feels obligated to keep up the stuggle, but it is wearisome. Rabbi Goldson, I pray you are right.

(1) Anonymous, January 8, 2006 12:00 AM

excellent stimulating viewpoint...

spirituality thro Judaism often stumbles on to success and fulfilment of the law.. witness Abraham dynamically smashing the idols and embarking on his spiritual journey... Moses slaying the Egyptian taskmaster.. and Jacob the supplanter being chosen as spiritually more responsible over Esau... one seemingly random eccentric but defining act often lead to destiny in the Torah if it was spiritually correct... kol ha kavod to our Rorah...

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