Tetzaveh: Hard Work

Producing a full cup of oil from the first drop is hard work, but good people don’t shy away from hard work.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Olive oil jar 8,000 years old
Olive oil jar 8,000 years old
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The Reward
A little girl complained to her father that her chores are too difficult. The father, a chef, invited her to the kitchen and put up three pots to boil. In the first he placed a potato, in the second an egg and in the third, a coffee bean. Twenty minutes later, he showed his daughter his handiwork. You see, said the father, hard work raises your temperature, but it all depends on how you react. The potato goes in hard, but comes out shriveled and soft. The egg goes in soft, but changes into something brittle and hard. The coffee is unique. It doesn’t change. On the contrary, it changes the water to create something better.

The Talmud describes the painstaking process of producing oil for the Temple’s candelabra. Only the first drop of oil could be used from each olive because only the purest oil was permitted. However, oil used for the meal offerings did not need to be as pure. It was permissible to use the first drop, but not necessary. One was also permitted to use the second or third drop.[1]

Producing a full cup of oil from the first drop is hard work, but good people don’t shy away from hard work. It is only through hard work that we find ourselves; that we discover who we really are. It is easier to take the soft path, but the challenging path is more rewarding. The hard path gives us a chance to make something better of ourselves. It allows us to become pure.

A man once asked G-d to tell him his purpose in life. G-d replied that his purpose was to push a mountain. After months of pushing the man complained that it was a fool’s errand, the mountain had yet to move. G-d explained, I never told you to move the mountain, I only told you to push it. Look at how much stronger you have grown in the past few months as you exercised your muscles and pushed the mountain.

Hard work is not a means to an end. Hard work is the end.

The Talmud teaches us not to believe someone, who claims to have worked hard to no avail. [2]  Many have wondered why such a claim isn’t believable. Isn’t it possible to fail even if we work hard? Some explain that if you failed, you didn’t work hard enough. Others say the reason is much simpler. Hard work is its own reward. If you have worked hard, you are already a success. Whether you achieved or failed, you have succeeded.

Runners know that tacking on an extra minute to the end of their run is harder than the entire run put together. Do you know how they know this? Because they have tried it, again and again. If it is so hard, why do they keep doing it? Because they know that this extra minute is worth more in character and muscle building than the entire run put together.

Means and End
This raises a question. If hard work is self rewarding, why do we consider the workaholic syndrome unhealthy?

The answer is as direct as it is simple. When work is a means to an end, the hard work has no value in if the end can be achieved without hard work. If the purpose of work is to earn money and one can earn enough without excessively hard work, it is wiser to work less and spend more time with family. The inability to bring oneself to do that is indicative of an obsession or illness.

But hard work that is not a means, but an end to itself, is its own reward. When it comes to Torah and G-dliness, no amount of toil is excessive because the labor is not a means to an end, the toil is its own end. When it comes to earning a living, too much toil is excessive if you can make do with less.

This is the deeper reason for why only the first drop can be used for the candelabra, but that the oil for the meal offerings can be comprised of the second and third drops too. The candelabra represents Torah and Mitzvah and you can’t have a connection with G-d until you have paired down your ego and that is achieved through hard work. The harder we work, the more we pair down our ego and the closer we get to G-d. There is therefore no limit on how much hard work is enough.

Meal offerings, which represent our earning capacity and economic abilities don’t have to entail hard work. If we can make enough money without working hard, it does us no good to work hard. It is permissible to work hard if it is necessary, but it is unwise to work hard if it is unnecessary. Better to use the extra time for more important things.

Learning and Learning
A student once told his teacher that he learned the entire Torah. The teacher congratulated the student, but asked a probing question. I understand that you learned the Torah, but what did you learn from the Torah? What did the Torah teach you?

One can master the entire Torah and fail to be mastered by it. Fail to turn into something better. This is because the student did not apply himself to his studies. He failed to probe the personally relevant meanings and find the self-help techniques embedded in each verse. When I was a child, my teacher told us that one should bend over the Talmud, not let the Talmud bend over him. Don’t sit back and tilt the large book toward you. Sit forward and lean into the book.

Leaning into the book means that we mold ourselves to the Torah rather than mold the Torah to us. We humble ourselves and become the Torah’s student. We seek to be mastered by the Torah rather than become its master. We work hard and apply ourselves and then the Torah will help us grow.

True Torah scholars are devoted to their studies. Nothing is more important to them. They constantly push themselves to study more, to apply themselves more. Each day a little more than yesterday because as it is with runners, so it is with Torah–the more you push yourself beyond your norm, the more personal barriers you will break and the more you will release your true potential.

We don’t emerge from the hard work of Torah study hardened and brittle. We don’t emerge from the hard work of Mitzvah observance, broken and soft. We emerge with joy and alacrity prepared to make this world a purer, holier and better place.[3]

Footnotes:

[1] Babylonian Talmud,Menachos 86a & 86b.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 6b.

[3] This essay is culled from commentary by L’Torah Ul’moadim by Rabbi Yosef Zevin on Exodus 27:20.