Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakkaneh said: Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah study, the yoke of government and the yoke of livelihood will be removed from him. Whoever casts off from himself the yoke of Torah study, the yokes of government and livelihood will be placed upon him. -- Ethics of the Fathers, 3:6
I don't think I'll ever forget my college English professor's description of young prince Hal, hero of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, about whom he said that, "Hal fights like hell for the privilege of not having to work for a living."
Ironically, the intoxicating western ideal of free time has produced a culture of workaholics: aspiring legal associates work 90 hour weeks to make partner, computer programmers and designers burn the midnight oil to outstrip their competition, and business executives regularly work nights and weekends to beat the guy in the next cubicle up the next rung of the corporate ladder.
And what does money bring them? Leisure.
Thus we find that Shakespeare's profile of the prodigal prince has become a prophetic vision: a whole generation of prince Hals, working like hell for the privilege of not having to work.
THE REWARDS OF LABOR
The Zohar, our classic book of Jewish mysticism, offers the converse observation concerning the Jewish people, explaining that our ancestors brought upon themselves the hard labor of Egyptian slavery because they did not apply themselves with sufficient diligence to their study and observance of Torah.
At first glance this may appear as the vindictive retribution of a petulant Deity: Because you didn't serve Me, I'm going to make you serve someone worse. A closer look, however, reveals a more profound interpretation.
Let us first consider that God placed Man in this world to earn his ultimate reward in the World to Come by living a life of moral and spiritual purpose, by refining his character, and by aspiring toward godliness. To the extent that a person toils to transform himself into a spiritual being, proportionally will he enjoy the spiritual benefits of life when he departs this world for the next.
But if a person chooses instead to pursue the base pleasures of immediate physical gratification, how will a merciful God respond? Will the Almighty say, "You've made your choice, now live with the consequences for all eternity"? Or will the God of mercy not say instead, "I will not allow you, My beloved, to throw away your eternal reward. Since you have not chosen to labor in spiritual pursuits, I will impose upon you such labor that you have no time for material indulgence and spiritual degradation"?
EYE ON THE BALL
The greatest irony may be that so many of us are doing exactly what God wants us to do, albeit for entirely the wrong reasons. We work hard, we strive to do our best, we skimp and save for the future, and we delay gratification. In these ways our lives perfectly conform to the kind of life the Torah teaches that we should live.
The problem is that we've allowed our eyes to stray from the ball. We work hard not because we appreciate the value of purposeful labor but because we think that by working harder now we will have to work less later, as if every person is assigned at birth a certain number of work-hours for his lifetime and can get them out of the way faster by lumping them all together.
We strive to do our best not because we value quality but to impress the boss. We skimp and save not because we understand that buying many little pleasures will not produce genuine happiness, but because we think that buying a few big pleasures will. We therefore delay small gratifications now so we can indulge bigger gratifications later.
Typically, we achieve one of three results. First, we may finally reach the time and opportunity of our long-delayed goal, only to discover that it wasn't what we hoped it would be. Second, we may truly find a moment of blissful distraction upon attainment of our goal, after which we relive the experience again and again, denying ourselves the genuine pleasure of living in reality for the artificial pleasure of memory. Third, we may never attain our goal, delaying and saving and looking forward to a dream that we will never reach.
It's difficult to say which of these outcomes is most tragic.
COMING HOME FROM EXILE
Many of us have observed that when we are home, we long to get away, but when we do have the opportunity to travel, we find ourselves eager to get back home. Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains that, in truth, the human soul is never home but in perpetual exile. Consequently, when I am at "home," my soul is restless, for it desires its real home before the heavenly throne of God. But when I travel, my soul lacks even the relative familiarity of its temporary "home" in the physical world.
Until the day that we complete our temporal journey through the physical world, our soul has only one true home: the Torah. Involvement in Torah study brings the soul into the comfort of pure spirituality, bringing it the only real peace available to it in the midst of its exile.
By accepting upon ourselves the yoke of Torah we free ourselves from the tension and dissonance of exile, and all the problems and distractions of the physical world seem to fade from our consciousness like morning mist before the rising sun. But if we seek to embrace the physical to the point where we forget the spiritual, we discover new problems and distractions at every turn.
Since we are already adept at delaying small physical gratifications for larger ones, it's not so imposing a proposition to apply the lesson of our mishna, to toil in pursuit of the true happiness that comes only from shouldering the yoke of Torah.