Pirkei Avos is a collection of the ethical writings of our Sages.  The ethical guidelines attributed to each Sage were particularly important to him, and often formed the cornerstone of his life.  By examining how a Sage "lived" his ethical principle, we can learn more about what the principle can mean to us.  This approach is particularly striking when one looks at Rabbi Tarfon's aphorisms and his life. 

Rabbi Tarfon's Aphorisms

            Rabbi Tarfon's contribution to Pirkei Avos is two Mishnayos at the end of the second chapter.  The first is well known by us all:

Rabbi Tarfon says:  The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.

This is interpreted almost uniformly by the commentaries as describing man's relationship to G-D.  Man's life is like a short day, not even like a long summer day but like a short winter's day.  His life is described as tzel over, a fleeting shadow, not even a stationary shadow.  The Torah, which man is to study, is vast and unending.  One would think that this might stir the workers (men) to work harder, but in fact they are lazy.  Another interpretation of this is even those men who work hard are lazy compared to what there is to acccomplish.  If the salary were low, it would be understandable that the workers slack off, but here the reward is great.  If the master did not care about the work it might be understandable that the workers are lazy, but in this case the Boss (Hashem) is very interested in the work being done.  The Abarbanel explains that the laziness described here refers to people who have worthy goals, but don't do what they have to in order to achieve them. 

            The following Mishnah continues:

He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say:  It is not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.  If you have studied much Torah, abundant reward will be given to you, and your Employer is faithful to pay you the reward of your work.  But know that the payment of reward to the righteous is in the time to come.

This is regarded as the necessary accompaniment to the first Mishnah.  The first Mishnah is supposed to stir us to action, but can also lead to a sense of frustration and futility.  The work to do is greater than a man could do even if he lived for a thousand years!  So why should a man even start to work, knowing that he can't finish?  In this Mishnah, Rabbi Tarfon responds to this difficulty and expresses profound ideas that have a great implication for our own lives today.

You are not obligated to complete the work.  You are merely obligated to work.  Unlike the usual payment of people for completion of a job, you are rewarded for the work that you do, with no expectation of completion.  Not only are you not obligated to complete the work, but the completion of the work is not in your hands to accomplish.  This can be interpreted in several ways:

1.         The work is infinite and in this meeting of finite man with an infinite task, definitions of success and failure are different.  As Rabbi Bulka says in his book, As a Tree by the Waters, "...This infinite task is not of the type which are worse off half done.  People are naturally reluctant to assume a task which cannot be fully achieved, and thus may desist from the life task for fear of sure failure.  However, precisely because total achievement is impossible is failure also a different category.  Failure is defined in terms of not even trying, of seeing no culmination and therefore not even starting the task.  You are not free to desist from it.  Life is not a birth and a death, a start and a finish;  it is a never-ending process in which every little bit contributes to life's ultimate aims."

2.         We can only do what we can.  Achievement is not in our hands but Hashem's.  "The Chofetz Chaim had a saying:  Our task is to act, to do.  The results, to carry out and achieve, are the business of the Creator.  When something has to be done, there is not a need to strive insistently to carry it out splendidly.  The main thing is to get the matter done." (The Hafetz Hayyim on Pirkei Avoth)

3.         In addition, man is rewarded by how much he works, not necessarily by what he attains or how great a scholar he is.  Both the sage and the ignorant person could say "I have no need for learning", the sage because he knows so much already and the ignorant person because he knows he will not learn much despite much effort, but Hashem still wants each person to do, to engage.

How Rabbi Tarfon "lived" his principles

When one looks at Rabbi Tarfon's life in the context of his maxims in Pirkei Avos, it is striking that his life was a living expression of these maxims.  In every sphere of his life, he did as much as he could, often exceeding expected behavior.  One has the feeling that many of his halachic and aggadic approaches were also driven by this need for action to the greatest extent possible.

Background.  (Much of this material is from Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Geonic Literature, by Dr. Mordechai Margalioth.)  Rabbi Tarfon was a Tanna who lived in the first to second century.  He was a Kohen, and in his childhood, he saw the Bais Hamikdash and went up with his uncle to duchan .  He learned from Rabban Gamliel the elder and from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, but also from Bais Shammai.  He was considered one of the greatest Chachomim of his generation in Yavneh.  He was called "the father of all Israel", "Rabban of all Israel".  In the discussions of the Chachomim in Kerem B'Yavneh, he would express his view first.  The heads of the Chachomim, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah called him "my brother".  He was a regular participant in the learning, to the extent that when he was once absent, Rabban Gamliel asked him "Why didn't you come to the Bais Medrash yesterday?"  Rabbi Tarfon lived in Lud, and was the spiritual leader there.  There was a meeting place for Chachomim there, and Rabbi Tarfon was one of the regular speakers.   When Rabbi Eliezer was sick, four Zekainim came to visit, R. Tarfon, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar ben Azariah and R. Akiva, and R. Tarfon spoke first.  Rabbi Tarfon's students included Rabbi Akiva, but R. Tarfon gave great respect to R. Akiva, once remarking:  "anyone who separates from you Akiva, is separating from his life"  and again "Fortunate are you, Avraham Avinu, that Akiva came out of your loins."  R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said of themselves that if they had been on the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been killed.  R. Tarfon was careful not to use his knowledge of Torah for self-aggrandizement.  Once he was abducted and escaped by identifying himself.  For the rest of his life he regretted this:  "Woe is me that I made use of the crown of Torah."  R. Tarfon was an excellent teacher.  He opposed having the teacher speak, with the students passively listening and remembering.  He felt the teacher should ask the students questions, and work with them in understanding and answering them, so that the students acquire the knowledge through their own efforts and in this way develop their talents and become capable of independent study.  If students asked him a question, he would ask them to try to answer first. (Mechilta B'shalach )  He would get 'permission' from his students to ask them questions.(Tosefta Brachos 4:16).

 Examples of Rabbi Tarfon's commitment to action 

            Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi learned from Rabbi Tarfon in his youth, and he later described R. Tarfon as a pile of nuts (Gittin 67a), meaning that once R. Tarfon began teaching, an abundance of teaching would pour forth in Mikrah, Mishnah, Midrash, Halacha, and Agada.(Avos d'Rabbi Natan)

            He viewed collecting and eating T'rumah after the destruction of the Temple to still be a form of Avodah.(Pesachim 73a)  He would return the money collected for Pidyon Haben and used the T'rumah to help poor people.(Tosefta Bechoros 6:14)  In a year of famine, he was m'kadesh (i.e. he himself married) 300 poor women so that they could eat of the T'rumah.(Tosefta Ksuvos 5:1)

            R. Tarfon was scrupulous in observing Kibbud Em, honoring one's parents.  One Shabbos, his mother was walking and her shoe broke.  He placed his hands under her feet, and they proceeded in this way until she reached her bed.(Yerushalmi Kiddushin)  R. Tarfon's mother recounted the great obedience of her son to the Chachomim, who told her that this was not even a fraction of what one must do for Kibbud Av V'Em.  (Rabbi Tarfon would certainly have agreed with their assessment;  he would do as much as he could, at the same time recognizing that he could never totally fulfill this commandment.)

            R. Tarfon was warm and kind to all people.  He would do things to make his wife and children rejoice on the holidays.  He would buy appropriate gifts for each.  Once he saw a Kallah walking.(Yerushalmi Pesachim)  He took her into his house and had his wife wash, anoint,  and bejewel her, and dance with her to her husband's house.(Avos d'Rabbi Natan) 

            R. Tarfon said a number of things, in addition to those in Pirkei Avos, describing man's relationship to Hashem as a worker to his master, and extolling the importance of work.  In Avos d'Rabbi Natan, he said, "Hashem did not cause his Shechina to rest on Israel until they did work.  As it says, "and they will make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst."   (That is, once they had done work they were worthy of receiving the Shechinah.)   He also said, "A person does not die except from a situation of battala  (doing no useful work)".  When asked, "Which is greater, learning or action?", he responded that action was greater.(Kiddushin 40b)

            R. Tarfon's emphasis on action and deeds is reflected in his Aggadic explanations.  One famous Aggada emphasizes this.  When Rabbi Tarfon was asked, "By what merit did Yehudah merit the kingship?", he said, "When the tribes stood at the Sea, each said 'I will not descend first'.  While they were standing and discussing, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in, and his tribe after him.  Therefore he (Judah) merited the kingship...Hashem said to them, 'He who sanctified my name at the sea will come and rule Israel.'"  In commenting on the verse, "Do not hate your brother in your heart.  Rebuke your friend (Hochaiach Tochiach)"(Vayikra 19:17), R. Tarfon said If there is Avodah in this generation, you are able to rebuke.

            Even in difficult situations, Rabbi Tarfon seemed determined to act.  He was the Tanna who suggested a way to allow the descendants of a mamzer to become part of B'nei Yisrael.  He suggested the mamzer marry a shifchah.  Then her son is an eved, and on being freed he becomes a ben chorin and can become part of B'nei Yisrael.  He told Rabbi Yehudah that he had purified three lepers with a certain wood, from which it is learned that the rules related to purification from tzora'as may apply after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash (Tosefta, Negaim)  He felt the books of the minim (apostates) should be burned, saying that if Hashem's name can be dissolved to make peace between a husband and wife, that the minim's books can be burned.

Applications for our lives

            It goes without saying that the p'shat of Rabbi Tarfon's mishnayos is that they are describing the infinite task of Torah study.  Rabbi Tarfon's life sheds light on how an individual might approach such a task.  In addition, there are many applications of Rabbi Tarfon's mishnayos in our daily lives, both in terms of how we do mitzvos and how we live and behave in the world.

1.  In general, we can't do everything, but we must do.  We cannot use as an excuse that we can't do it all. 

2.  We can't guarantee accomplishment or achievement.  Only Hashem can let work be completed.  There may be obstacles preventing our accomplishment.  I have to do what I can, what depends on me.  We may prepare everything exactly, and then find some slip prevents us from achieving what we wanted.  We or our children may study hard for a test, and then get stumped by questions or make careless mistakes.  At some point, we have to say that we did what we could, and the rest is in Hashem's hands.

3.  I am not required to be an expert, just to work consistently.  We don't need to have a 'g'mar m'lachah' (from lo alecha ham'lachah ligmor in the mishnah), a finished task; we just need to do what we can.

4.  I don't have to do the work myself  (from lo alecha in the mishnah).  I can recruit collaborators, student, family members, etc. to help.  The goal is to get the work done, not necessarily for me to do it.  We have to realize that we are not the only resource to help accomplish things.

5.  Even in performing Mitzvos, I must keep doing.  I must daven even if I can't achieve great  kavana.  Our Chachomim gave us mitzvos to do and keep doing, even if we can't achieve the kavana we'd like, or do them lishma.  It is our job not to withhold from performing these mitzvos even when we can't achieve a perfect job (g'mar m'lacha).

6.  So many of the things we do in life have no end.  Yet we must keep repeating them.  We must prepare  meals day in and day out, and there is no end to it.  We can't exercise for several months and then stop, because the benefit is in a continuous pattern of exercise. Similarly, it does not suffice to eat  right for some short period of time.  We must continue day after day, month after month, year after year.  The task is never done, but we cannot desist from it.

7.  Even at times when we are not functioning optimally due to external stresses, depression, etc., we must keep on acting.  As is noted above, the Chofetz Chaim said that Hashem is not concerned about splendid performance of a task so much as performance of the task.

8.  Judaism teaches us that man is important to Hashem, and can have a 'relationship' with Him.  It is difficult to understand how a finite mortal man can matter to Hashem in His infinite capabilities.  Perhaps by learning how we can make our actions meaningful, even when our actions are finite and the task is great or has no end, we can understand better how we can relate to Hashem.