Avot 2:19 - Work That Brings Reward

Rabbi Elazar said … Know before whom you toil; and know that your employer can be relied upon to pay you the wage of your labor. (m.Avot 2:19)

Before Whom you Toil

Life can sometimes take its toll on human beings. We often get caught up in the rat race of trying to stay afloat and miss out on life itself. There are so many distractions throughout our day that it is easy to lose site of what’s important. Sometimes the tug of social media pulls us away from our responsibilities and stifles our productivity. These distractions can easily steal our time, leaving us to wonder “What happened to my day?”

But what if your employer—or your client, for those of us who are self-employed—were watching over your shoulder throughout your work day? Would these distractions be as tempting as when you were left unattended? This is how we need to understand our mishnah. Rabbi Elazar tells us that we need to recognize before whom we are laboring. Although we may not see Him with our physical eyes, we should always be attentive to the fact of His presence. This is not only true for our occupational responsibilities, but should also be true for when we study Torah and labor for the Kingdom. These should all be as free from distraction and as productive as possible since the King of Kings is before us overseeing our labors.

The Wage of Your Labor

Have you ever worked for an employer that didn’t pay his employees on time nor what they were worth? Rabbi Elazar tells us we should always remember that Hashem is a faithful employer and He will give us our due wages. He will not withhold what is duly ours. Paul also uses this same imagery of laborers and employers to remind us that “each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers.” (1 Corinthians 3:8–9). When we are laboring for the Kingdom—THE Kingdom, and not our own kingdom—then we can rest assured that our labors are not in vain, and we will one day receive our due reward. 

But we also have to keep in mind that our reward may or may not come in this life. Some rewards come on the heals of our actions and others we may not see in our lifetime. The Talmud reminds us of this:

These are the things whose fruit a person partakes of in this world, but the full measure is stored up for him in the world to come. They are: honor of father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, attending to the dead, devotion in prayer, bringing peace between a man and his neighbor, and between a man and his wife. The study of Torah, however, is equal to them all. (b.Shabbat 127a)

We may be assured, however, that our Employer is faithful and will give everyone their just reward. Proverbs says, “The wicked earns deceptive wages, but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward” (Proverbs 11:18). The author of Hebrews says that in order to draw near to God we must first believe that He will reward our seeking: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). 

On the flip side, however, Antigonus of Soho taught that we should not serve our Hashem for the sake of reward (Avot 1:3). We should serve Him simply out of our obligation to do so. His disciples misunderstood their teacher and gave up hope in a reward, specifically the resurrection. The students of Antigonos of Soho are not unlike some students of Paul who claim he taught against works of righteousness. We, however, must clearly understand Paul’s firm belief that Hashem “will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). Therefore, we must never give up hope as the students of Antigonos of Soho did. 

But that reward does not come without a price. It requires dedication and effort on our part. We must work diligently each day, laboring in the service of our King. This is what will bring our reward. It is not through confession nor belief, but through our faithful toiling. As Ben Heh-Heh used to say, “According to the effort is the reward” (Avot 5:26).