Striving for Excellence

Psalm 128: Striving for Excellence

"The Toil of Your Hands"

The Talmud [Brachot 8a] makes a rather astonishing claim about the importance of self-reliance:

"One who supports himself from his own labor is greater than one who fears heaven.

"About a God-fearing individual, it is written, "Happy is the one who fears God" [Ps. 112:1], while regarding one who lives from his own work, it says, "When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are happy and it is good for you" [Ps. 128:12]. "You are happy" - in this world, and "it is good for you" - in the next world. But of the God-fearing person, it does not say, "it is good for you.""

Had the Sages remarked that fear of heaven is a valuable asset for the world to come, while self-sufficiency is an important trait for living in this world, this statement would have been understandable. But their claim is just the opposite: fear of heaven reflects a happiness of this world, while self-sufficiency relates to the ultimate good of the next world. How so?

Two Mindsets

We usually think of self-reliance only in terms of livelihood. Actually, it is a mindset, relating to all aspects of life, material and spiritual. The Talmud is not just contrasting the farmer who works with his hands with the yeshiva student who is supported by charity. The Talmud is comparing two basic philosophies of life.

The first attitude is that we should do our utmost to succeed, using our best efforts and talents. This trait may be found in industrious businessmen, world-class athletes, and dedicated scholars, all of whom enjoy the benefits of their hard-won labors. This work ethic is applicable to all areas, including the spiritual. When we devote our energies towards growth in Torah and wisdom, character refinement, good deeds, and so on, we exhibit the trait of self- reliance.

The second attitude, as typified by the God-fearing, ultimately boils down to a passive reliance on divine intervention. The pious mindset does not reject human effort; but it is willing to settle for the minimum exertion necessary. For the rest, one trusts that God will take care of matters.

This approach is expressed by a passive attitude not only with regard to one's livelihood, but also regarding spiritual aspirations. Such a person, unwilling to tax his brain, will settle for a superficial understanding of Torah knowledge and wisdom. He will not struggle to achieve excellence in Torah, nor in other spiritual attainments.

But what is so terrible with the 'fear of heaven' mentality? Why constantly struggle for excellence? Why not 'relax and enjoy life'?

Bread of Shame

Were one to believe the sales pitches of travel agents, life's ultimate pleasure would be a relaxing vacation on a secluded beach. This may be enjoyable, but our greatest pleasures come, not from resting, but from hard work. Our greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fruit of our own labors; our happiest moments occur when we finally attain our hard-gained goals. This deeply-felt sense of fulfillment is an innate aspect of human nature.

In fact, of all our inherent ethical qualities, this pleasure is the most elevated. Our free will to take initiative in order to achieve and perfect ourselves is a fundamental characteristic of the human soul. It is wrong to sit passively and rely on others to toil for us. Trust in God is a positive trait, but we should rely on divine assistance only in those situations when we are unable to help ourselves.

The ethical benefit to be found in self-reliance is the foundation of the entire Torah. We are judged according to our actions and free choices. This is the very purpose of the soul's descent and struggles with the body's physical desires. The Kabbalists referred to these efforts as 'fleeing' from "Nehama deKisufa" ('bread of shame,' the embarrassment felt when receiving an undeserved handout). True good is when we are able to elevate ourselves through our own efforts.

Good of the World to Come

Now we can understand the Talmud's comparison between one who fears heaven and one who supports himself. The essence of fear of heaven is to rely on divine assistance. Paradoxically, fear of heaven is a type of enjoyment - albeit, in its most elevated form - in that one 'relaxes' and relies on the current state of affairs. Thus, the Sages understood that the happiness of this trait - "Happy is the one who fears God" - is a happiness belonging to this world.

The good that comes from self-reliance, from growth through our own efforts, on the other hand, belongs to the absolute good of the next world, "yom shekulo tov." Only there will this trait be properly appreciated and understood.

Even in its lowest form, self-sufficiency is praiseworthy. It is fitting to honor one who has acquired this trait even in its simplest form, by supporting his family through his own honest labor. Such a person will continue to utilize this trait in all areas, including spiritual pursuits.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I, pp. 41-42]

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