Avot 2:20 - Urgent Business

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. (m.Avot 2:20)

If you’ve been a student of the Apostolic Scriptures for any length of time you are sure to recognize the similarities between the words of Rabbi Tarfon and those of our Master Yeshua. Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent.” Yeshua said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). 

According to both Yeshua and Rabbi Tarfon, there is pressing business at hand and diligent workers are desperately needed for it. But what is the task, and why is there an urgent need for workers? For Yeshua’s disciples it may seem obvious. From a traditional perspective we would say that the task for followers of Yeshua is evangelism. It would seem our goal is to “save souls.” However, reducing down Yeshua’s message of good news to saving souls is a very limiting perspective of his redemptive plan and does not necessarily change the quality of a person’s life in his present circumstances.

What if Rabbi Yeshua’s urgent task was more congruent with that of Rabbi Tarfon’s than we might imagine? What was Rabbi Tarfon’s urgent task? We are given a few clues in the next mishnah, where he continues by saying, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). What task is so great that we cannot expect to complete it, but yet we are required to engage in it? The answer is tikkun olam

Tikkun olam is the process of repairing this broken world, and it is something that Judaism places a great emphasis on. How is it accomplished? Through Torah and good deeds, particularly those that affect the people around us. Everything a person does in this world has a ripple effect. Whether we commit a sin or perform a mitzvah, the ripples from a single deed may continue on for an undetermined amount of time. Our actions have reactions, as it is said, “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward of one transgression is another transgression” (Avot 4:2).

Rabbi Tarfon addresses several aspects of a worker’s relationship with his task: the time, the task, his attitude, the reward, and the urgency of the employer. These are all factors which will determine whether or not a worker will be able to complete his assigned task. Our perspective on each of these can either cripple us or aid us in our ability to carry out our task. 

For instance, if we think about the time factor, we can look at it two ways: we can complain that we don’t have enough time to complete the task, or we can see that we will only be laboring for a short time. As far as the task is concerned, we can either be interested and excited about it, or we can be ambivalent towards it. When it comes to attitude, we can keep a positive perspective or we can turn it to the negative. Reward is another consideration altogether. Since we are still waiting for our reward, we have to continually maintain our hope in its arrival. Otherwise, we will end up like the disciples of Antigonus of Socho. Last, the urgency of our employer can either weary us or stimulate us. We can either ignore His urgency or make it our own. A person who makes the urgency of his employer his own is a focused individual.

Sometimes we get overwhelmed at the amount of work ahead of us that’s required to make a difference in this world. We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. All we can see is overwhelm. But if we keep our eye on the goal, and not on all of the obstacles along the way, then everything we do should be putting us one step closer to the Kingdom. The task is great, but the laborers are lazy. The harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Will you labor with me for the Kingdom by helping bring tikkun olam to our present world? Our Master is urgent. Are we?