I’d like to begin by saying Shanah tovah to all my readers! This past Wednesday began Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year and one of the most important holidays in the Jewish year. The ten days following until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) next Saturday are referred to as the Days of Awe and are a time to seek forgiveness and make amends for the coming year.
Today, however, my focus is still on the Pirkei Avot.
2.20 Rabbi Tarfon taught:
The day is short, the task is great;
the workers indolent, the reward bountiful,
and the Master insistent!
What is this, a piece of poetry? Though I’m apt to adore art, I must wonder what is meant by this, what lesson was intended, what pupils were at his feet when he spoke these words….
I hold two theories about what this might mean. The first is that it’s a continuation of Rabbi Elazar’s lesson last week about the importance of studying Torah. Certainly, the day is short for the length of the Torah–and even shorter if we include in that length the oral Torah, the Talmud–and studying makes us weary and indolent while the rewards of study remain great, and God as our master has commanded us to study it, too. Seriously, it’s a compelling argument.
And on any other day that is precisely the angle I’d argue.
But today is not any other day. Today is one of the Days of Awe. And I believe the lessons we perceive are each given when we need them most, and only when we see them in the entirety of the moment can we truly learn what is wanted for us. This teaching need not apply only to Torah. It can apply to any human endeavor.
The day was shorter in ancient times, when candles were our only source of light once darkness fell and burning candles was an expensive habit to have. So we rose early with the sun, got our work done, and retired at dusk to rest for the night. Then came the light bulb. Electricity. Now we live twenty-four hours a day–and when, when do we really rest? I count my days from six when I wake to about one or two in the morning when I go to sleep. Fluorescence has been my saving grace, stretching light into darkness and giving me all the time I need to get things done. But at a price: What time I spend working, waking, I lose in rest, relaxation, recovery.
Meanwhile, the task has grown greater. Technology has allowed us to move greater distances in smaller times, stay in touch with people we’ve never met in person, and have access to more information than humanly imaginable. New research and observations have lead the way in math and physics, chemistry and biology, psychology and sociology. Records have expanded history and with every passing day, history is compounded and increased with the perspective of every living thing immortalized in every conceivable way–in texts, in tomes, in houses and homes, in newscasts, Tweets and statuses, in blog posts and RSS feeds. History is continuously under construction, and until the world ends, history will only continue to expand in every direction, in every medium, in every moment.
There was a time, long, long ago, when the wisest man knew only what a high school graduate knows today. Since then, the amount of knowledge to be gained has increased so exponentially that to conceive of a “wisest man alive” is more a fallacy than a goal to be achieved, at least until we learn to put a plug in mortality.
All of this is exhausting. We’re pulled in every direction with more responsibilities now than ever before. We must be activists and advocates for our own lives, agents and arbiters of a personal future forever under attack. We must choose what we do in every second, plan our days down to the instant to get the most of out anything we do. And how often, I ask you, do you go to bed knowing you must do tomorrow all the things you didn’t do today?
But the reward is great. At least, the reward we’re fighting for is great–what comes of it will always be less, will always be reduced to minuscule measures when finally we can reach it and lift it and roll it over in our hands. But we’ll keep working then, our eyes on new sights perpetually, for surely, sometime, certainly! We must, we must get there, to that distant city on the horizon, that place of Reward and Actuality and Infinity.
We never will, but it’s the hope that makes the journey worthwhile.
It’s the hope and the progress we make that keep us moving forward.
We can step toward the infinite, the end, that tower of everything we could ever dream of in the distance, but as we get closer, we approach a limit. It’s like when I give critical reviews of another’s story: At first, when they’re just beginning, the suggestions I make are broad and conceptual, but as they get closer to the perfection they seek, my advice narrows in on the small imperfections, the dangerous details that destroy wondrous worlds, particular problems that I address at greater length than I could lend them at the start. We can get closer and closer to all those things we imagine, but the world we create in our minds and the world we create with our hands will never be the same. We can make them similar, imperceptibly alike, but differences will remain.
This may all seem pessimistic, but I assure you that is not my intent, perhaps my tangent, but not my intent. Yes, the day is short and our task is great, and yes, we are wearied while our reward remains greater always than what we’ve got before us, but if we look only at all of this, we miss the last line of the stanza, the last fact that makes everything else everything we could ever want it be.
The Master is insistent!
At first this may make no sense, and if we think God is the master and we are his subjects, and our work is his work, and he insists that we follow it, then suddenly it’s clear–in a very religiously all-is-fated kind of way. For some that may be encouraging, and surely at some times we all could use that encouragement, but I think this can be said more generally, more practically, more passionately if we take God out of the equation.
Rather, if we move God around in the equation.
If we rearrange the assignment statement and integrate the result, we find that we–yes, we–are our own masters. We each have a fraction of the infinite within us, we each have our own destiny and purpose–but what that purpose is, what that destiny says for us, is also what we decide. Our DNA defines our challenges, and our situations in life accentuate the fine nuances we never want, but we are the force that animates the picture. Either we succumb to those things that hinder us, or we rise above them to attain greater heights.
One of the most wondrous things about Rosh HaShanah is that it’s a new beginning. The secular new year is one thing: We drop a ball and eat some cream cheese on Ritz crackers. But the Jewish new year is wholly another: We take time to reflect, we cast away our sins and transgressions, repent for our inequities, and vow to become a better person. There’s ritual and faith to accentuate all those things we want to change in ourselves, and then there’s rituals and faith to help us make those changes. We’re not making resolutions to fix ourselves or putting a patch over our broken pieces. We’re recoding our DNA and recreating ourselves. Our past mistakes are gone, unwritten. We are completely new to do exactly what we choose to do.
The task remains great and the day remains short, but the rewards only ever grow greater as we go on. If we are insistent, if we truly want to change, to better ourselves, to reach our dreams and aspirations, we will get there–and the only ones ever capable of truly stopping us are ourselves. If we don’t stop, we’ll never be stopped.
So for now, and for always, I wish you a happy new year. May this year be sweet and fortunate and bring you closer to all those dreams that you could ever wish for.