This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.By Elisheva Maline
He used to say [Rabbi Tarfon], "It is not for you to finish the work; it is also not up to you to desist. If you have studied a lot of Torah, you will be given much reward. Your Employer [G-d] is trustworthy; He will pay you your due. Just remember: the grant of reward for the righteous is in the world to come."
Once upon a time, a wise man befriended a fool. Now, to the passing observer, it was not clear which one was the clever one and which one wasn't. The two themselves could not tell. One day, the wise man and fool entered a library packed floor to ceiling with books. After staring at the stacked shelves for a few moments, one approached the pile of dusty tomes, pulled down a text and began to read. The other remained standing. After a moment or two, he threw up his hands in disgust and cried, "There is too much to read here. How will I ever finish?" Overwhelmed, he left. Now tell me, which one was the fool and which one wasn't?
In his mishnah, Rabbi Tarfon shows us the following Klal (general rule): anything worth researching takes time. Anything worth finishing also takes time. Let it be noted that the Jewish faith does not only praise the end results; rather, G-d places the emphasis on the amount of effort we exert and rewards us accordingly. From this worldview Rabbi Tarfon reassures us, "It is not for you to finish the work..." Only defeatists refuse to start because they claim that unfinished work is worthless. Let me tell you something: man doesn't call the shots, "It is also not up to you to desist." The only thing G-d obligated us to do was take that first step, and then follow it with another, and another.
The first two phrases, "It is not for you to finish the work; it is also not up to you to desist." can be taken all sorts of places; however, in the case of Rabbi Tarfon's mishna, the subject of Torah learning is usually the one being addressed. People believe that if a righteous man is suffering, he is being punished and if a mafioso is rolling in the dough he is being rewarded. Let me put it to you straight: there is much more going on behind the scenes than eyes of flesh and blood can comprehend. Moshe asked to speak to G-d face to face, to understand why bad things happen to good people, and G-d answered, "No human can look upon my face and live..." There are things in this world which we will never fully grasp. Therein lies the power of free will. If we understood all of G-d's actions there would be no desire to rebel against Him.
With regard to the phrase, "If you have studied a lot of Torah, you will be given much reward" understand that there is an eternal cause and effect at work which you may not be privy to here on earth. The reward Rabbi Tarfon is referring to is not necessarily tangible. What he means is: If you are a good person i.e. if you make an effort to bring G-d into your life, to follow the commandments and keep the Torah's laws, you will enjoy everlasting reward and if not... well, gehenom (hell's) a tough place.
Start learning if you haven't already begun. No time is better than now to begin ticking off all the items on your bucket list.
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