Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz. Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.
This mishnah is remarkable in the Jewish philosophical canon. In the economy of a single sentence, Rabbi Tarfon lays out a Jewish apothegm of a life dedicated to hard work in a hard world.
Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the wage is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.
A critical Jewish task is to become a person who values the remarkable nature of time. Every day, people rush from urgency to urgency because of feelings of deep responsibility. But it is a spiritual art to be in a state of rush, accomplishing as much as possible as effectively as possible, while also remaining focused and calm. We are divided, consumed by an overabundance of commitments, and yet we are to be present, focused, and attentive. We are to sprint, while remaining aware of every footfall. While we continue to act and lead, we also must reflect deeply about the nature of our leadership and our purpose in the world.
Our days are short. Our lives are busy. We have obligations to meet: work, family, health, recreation, and attending to our spiritual needs. Balancing these disparate aspects of life is difficult. But we must find balance; it is commanded of us. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, in his eighteenth-century magnum opus on the cultivation of Jewish virtues, The Path of the Just, teaches:
Alacrity consists of two elements: one that relates to the period prior to the commencement of a deed, and the other that relates to the period that follows the commencement of a deed. The former means that prior to the commencement of a mitzvah a person must not delay [its performance]. Rather, when its time arrives, or when the opportunity [for its fulfillment] presents itself, or when it enters his mind, he must react speedily, without delay, to seize the mitzvah and to do it. He must not procrastinate at this time, for no danger is graver than this. Every new moment can bring with it some new hindrance to the fulfillment of the good deed.
Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet and essayist from Trinidad and Tobago, explains:
Revolutions do not happen outside of you, they happen in the vein, they change you and you change yourself, you wake up in the morning changing. You say this is the human being I want to be. You are making yourself for the future, and you do not even know the extent of it when you begin but you have a hint, a taste in your throat of the warm elixir of the possible.
While not every person is meant to be a revolutionary, taking on the mantle of leadership and creating local change are within reach for those who choose. Embracing this mission while “the day is short” means that we must “taste . . . the warm elixir of the possible.” Social change can happen quickly when a president signs a new law or when a new nation declares independence. Events can spiral in unintended directions at the behest of a small but vocal group. But spiritual and cultural changes take a long time to shift. Slavery was prohibited in America, but more than a century and a half later, we’re still dealing with the racial injustice that the practice of slavery set in motion.
To be sure, the fact that injustice continues to fester shows that the work to improve the world can never cease. We must engage deeply in the issues that affect countless people and propel the world toward justice.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.