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Pirke Avot chapter two, verses twenty and twenty-one

Your Humble Blogger has always particularly liked Rabbi Tarfon's sayings. I think that the last saying in this chapter was the first line from the avot that I quoted in this Tohu Bohu, albeit in another context. Anyway, here's R. Travers Herford's translation of verses twenty and twenty-one:

R. Tarphon said—The day is short and the work is great, and the labourers are sluggish, and the wages are high and the householder is urgent.

He used to say—The work is not upon thee to finish, nor art thou free to desist from it. If thou has learned much Torah they give thee much wages; and faithful is the master of thy work who will pay thee the wages of thy toil. And know that the giving of the reward to the righteous is in the time to come.

This continues the metaphor from R. Elazar ben Arach. The first verse is just a description, but of course in a work like this one, it's not just that R. Tarfon thinks that the world is like that, but that he thinks that there is a benefit to you if you adopt that view of the world. That is, if you think of yourself as an employee for the Divine, in a job that is frankly lousy a lot of the time and certainly difficult and dangerous but well-compensated, then you will be more likely to behave ethically than if you think of yourself as, f'r'ex, a child of a loving and Divine Parent. I'm inclined to agree, but then, my idea of the Divine is largely formed by this book, so why wouldn't I?

The bit that I quote—I'll be coming back to the whole metaphor, I promise— is the beginning of the last verse: the job is too big for one person, you won't finish it, but doesn't excuse you from doing all you can. I was arguing welfare policy at one point with a Conservative who brought out with a sense of triumph the argument that welfare payments would not eliminate poverty. Of course not, said I, nothing will ever eliminate poverty (until the end time, I might have said), but that doesn't mean we have the right to stop paying them. I think he was baffled. I didn't reach him, at that point, and it was pretty much the end of any of our conversations (for a variety of reasons, his Conservatism and my Liberalism not least of them) so I never will at this point. But in the spirit of the staircase, I want to attempt to clarify: if eradicating poverty is beyond us, we still have to reduce it and to alleviate it and to measure it and to own it.

Conservatives often think that Liberals believe in the perfectibility of human nature. This is not true; no liberals I have read or talked with think that humans will become perfect (by their own understanding of perfection, much less a Conservative's understanding) in any span of time that can be held in the mind. What Liberals believe in, for the most part, is that human society can be improved—not perfected, not completed, not finished. Not ever finished. But always improved. We can alleviate more misery, provide more opportunities for greatness to more of the population, promote the general welfare better and more generally, provide a little better protection to those who need it and diminish a bit the next generation's need for it. We can, Liberals believe, avoid a few mistakes that our parents made and bring forward a generation able to avoid a few mistakes we made. And another after that, we hope, and another after that. Have more happiness in more places.

We won't finish the job. We won't ever be finished washing dishes, either, or doing laundry; as long as we wear clothes and eat from plates, those jobs won't be finished. But if you neglect them, things get worse.

The work is great, and I am often sluggish. And often enough I feel like quitting altogether. But fortunately this metaphor of employment is not a complete metaphor, and we are both employees and family, both sheep and subjects. We can't quit. But we can't be fired, either. We are freelancers of the Divine Creation, whether we filled out the paperwork or not, and we will be rewarded for what work we do, whether we stand up to it first thing in the morning or slack off until we've finished reading the Internet.

And the reward? Well, the reward is in the world to come, Rabbi Tarfon tells us, and as much as I generally dislike too heavy an emphasis on the eschaton in my religious whatnot, the good thing about the world to come is that it is, like Orphan Annie's tomorrow, always coming.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I wonder sometimes whether the people who argue against a public policy simply because it does not appear to be a complete and perfect solution apply the same reasoning to any aspect of their own lives.

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