pirkei avot 2:20 - The Day is Short

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for                                                               her neshama.
Elisheva Maline 

Rabbi Tarfon says, "The day is short, the workload is large, the workers are lazy, the pay is great and the master of the house is pushy." 

If the above phrase is making you feel twitchy there's a reason: Rabbi Tarfon is addressing the supposed helplessness felt at the thought of an unknowable universe i.e. life after death and since the question of 'When will my time come?' lacks an answer, it becomes bu default one of life's bigger mysteries.  

Over time, this existential angst has inspired a plethora of reactions from history's villains, holy men and poets. These have ranged from the self defeating 'Well, I am going to die anyway...' (Genesis (25:32) to the righteous 'I have placed Hashem [G-d] before my eyes always...' (Psalms 16:8). The first kind of man might take the bit of time offered him as an excuse to commit crimes of greed and theft since, after all, he has decided to emphasize living for today, not tomorrow. The latter category, however, more righteous mindsets such as the Psalmist's, prayed, "Let me know, O L-rd, my end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short lived I am. Behold, You [G-d] have made my days some handbreadths and my time on earth is as nothing to You... Surely man goes about as a dark image; indeed, he toils for nothing; he amasses riches but doesn't not know who will gather them...' (Psalms 39:5-7). King David asked to know when his end would come so that he could use his time here by preparing for his seat in the afterlife. After all, the road to heaven isn't paved with cash.

How do we go about preparing for prime seats in the world to come? Rabbi Tarfon gave us this formula. People with goals and a destination to reach recognize that since 'the day is short and the work load is large' there is no time to waste. He follows up these first couple of lines with the following incentives: 'the payment (at the end of the day) is great' and 'the master of the house is pushy.' G-d is waiting to reward us for our efforts. However, as an aside, one must bear in mind that this world is neither qualitatively nor quantitatively big enough to recompense a person for his righteous deeds. Additionally, in his sefer (book) Path of the Just Rabbi Chaim Luzzato reasons that since people experience far more sadness and pain than peace and comfort in this world, it cannot be that this world is the focal arena; it must be a means to an end. Thus, the reward one experiences in this world cannot be compared to the pleasures awaiting the righteous in the world to come. Bear in mind that this world is like a training ground for the afterlife. G-d is like the coach (lehavdil) who demands nothing but our very best.  

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