Shiur #19: Perek 2, Mishnayot 15-16

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Both R. Tarfon's paragraphs discuss the same issue, the need to work assiduously at our Torah endeavors and the great reward that awaits us if we do.  R. Tarfon says:


The day is short and the work is great; the laborers are lazy; the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressuring.


He [also] used to say: It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned a great deal of Torah, then they will give you great reward, and the Master of your labor is trustworthy to pay you the reward for your work; and know that the reward for the righteous is in the World to Come."


Before we discuss Maharal's reading of these mishnayot - a personal memory.  At a Pesach seder when I was about nine or ten, my uncle (Ralph) told the story of R. Tarfon's being kidnapped.  It seems a man grabbed R. Tarfon, not knowing who he was, threw him in a bag, and carried him away.  R. Tarfon, fearing for his life, said "Oy lo le-Tarfon, she-zeh horgo (Oy for Tarfon, for this man is going to kill him)."  The man, recognizing the name, put R. Tarfon down and ran away.  The Gemara adds that R. Tarfon spent the rest of his life regretting his words, since he used his Torah reputation for personal gain, when he just as easily could have offered the man money (R. Tarfon was very wealthy). 


The story made an impression on me for the kidnapper's apparent respect for Torah scholars, despite his willingness to violate the Ten Commandments' prohibition against kidnapping.  In addition, R. Tarfon's regret made me realize that it is not only our conscious, deliberate actions that we can regret.  Sometimes, even recognizing that we were operating under tremendous pressures, we are nevertheless saddened by the way we chose to handle the situation.


Returning to the mishnayot, the first paragraph seems to express itself redundantly, a redundancy that earlier commentators, such as R. Shimon b. Tzemah Duran, had already noticed.  If the day is short, then we will not be able to complete the work even if it were not particularly burdensome.  Similarly, if the work is great, even a long period will not suffice.  One question for the mishna, then, is why both limitations on success are mentioned?  Second, Maharal is bothered by the notion of the Master pressuring - is there a point to our knowing of the pressure from God?




In Maharal's reading, the whole point is to encourage people to work hard at learning Torah.  To stress how much effort is required, the mishna mentions two daunting aspects of the challenge of mastering Torah:  the shortness of the day (human lives) and the length of the material (Torah).  Given those two sides, Jews will recognize their need to struggle even harder to absorb Torah.


That same emphasis on effort and struggle explains the references to the laziness of the workers and the pressure of the Master.  The laziness of people in terms of Torah stems from their physical selves; God does not share that flaw since He is not physical in any way.  The resulting situation is that God is watching for us to learn and put effort into our learning, while our physical sides encourage us not to.




Maharal contrasts the second mishna, which says that we are not required to complete the work, and that we get reward for whatever Torah we have learned, with a mishna in Menachot that says, "Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad hamam'it, u-bilvad she-yekhavein libo la-shamayim (roughly translated as it does not matter how much you do, so long as your intentions are pure)."  Maharal points out that if our mishna meant to make the same point, it should have said, "if you have labored in Torah," rather than "if you have learned a great deal of Torah."


Maharal decides therefore that this mishna is making a different point.  He notes that there are two kinds of reward:  the reward for effort and the reward for the action itself.  In each, the mishna needs to clear up a possible misconception.  Regarding effort, one may have thought that the amount of sacrifice to God outweighs the effort that went into the procuring of it - someone who sacrifices more at less personal cost, we may think, will still gain greater reward than someone who sacrifices a great deal, but produces less.  The mishna therefore tells us that some part of reward depends solely on effort; in that realm, the actual size of the offering does not matter.




Our mishna, however, is combating another possible misconception.  Many jobs in life depend on completion for payment - a contractor, for example, does not get payment until the job is done.  With Torah study as well, we may imagine that until we have learned all of the Torah, we would not get any of the reward - in halakha, this concept is known as "ein la-sekhirut ela le-vasof (the remuneration for a job accrues only at the end)."  The mishna therefore points out that we have no responsibility to complete the job, and we will receive compensation for however much we accomplish.


Then Maharal questions the verb in the phrase "you will be given a great deal of reward."  If we are discussing the reward for the action itself, not the effort alone, then the verb should be "paid" rather than "given."  Maharal answers that the notion of payment does not allow for the use of the term "a great deal."  Since reward includes reward for effort, though, it can be "a great deal" of reward.


The reminder that the reward comes in the World to Come, in Maharal's view, points out another similarity between our labor in Torah and the work of a contractor.  While we may not be required to finish the job, it is nevertheless true that our compensation comes only once we have finished whatever work we are going to do on that job.  I find this notion challenging - if each piece of Torah we learn is equivalent to every other, it seems to me, then there is no particular reason to insist that the reward come at the end.  Why could God not repay the Torah I learned at age twenty sometime over the next twenty years?  Maharal's assumption (along with many other traditional Jewish thinkers) that the reward comes only in the World to Come demands that we consider it important.


One possibility would be that God only wants to give us reward of the best kind, which would be Olam Haba, the World to Come.  In fact, when explaining why reward does not come until the end, Maharal offers an analogy to a worker in the fields who will receive payment from the new harvest, suggesting that the material of reward is not available until our lives come to their end. 


I think, however, that another way to see it is at least as interesting.  The thrust of Maharal's comments is that we do not get our reward until our participation in the work has ended.  The limiting factor, in that phrasing, seems to be our continued involvement, not God's desire to wait until some later time.  That suggests that while we are still involved in the endeavor of learning Torah (meaning over the course of our lives, not while we are actually studying), it is not yet relevant to give us our reward.  (Let me repeat: the next piece is my own, but it seems to me to fit with what Maharal is saying.) 


That, in turn, suggests that as we learn more Torah, all of our Torah is affected by it; Torah is not simply cumulative - each new piece builds on what came before and therefore adds more than arithmetically.  If so, when the mishna says "if you have learned a great deal of Torah, then you will be given a great deal of reward," it means that our reward depends on each piece of Torah that we learn.  Until the end of our lives, then, as we add to our personal Torah-banks, we are not just adding to our reward incrementally, but changing it fundamentally.


If that concept is true, then it means that the books cannot be closed even on Torah we have already learned until our lives end.  Something I learned when I was age twenty may yet figure differently in my Torah knowledge, depending on how my future goes.  Thus, while I have no obligation to "finish the work" until my personal work is done, my contribution (even the earlier parts of it) cannot be evaluated - it is therefore clear why "you are not permitted to desist from it."  It is not only because there is a continuing obligation, but it is also that I can never know how much a marginal increase in Torah will affect me and my whole reward for my Torah learning.



Next week, we will begin the third chapter. - See you then.