Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 128: Striving for Excellence

“Happy is the one who fears God, who follows in His ways. When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are happy and it is good for you.” (Psalms 128:1-2)

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The Toil of Your Hands

The Talmud (Berachot 8a) explains that the psalmist is referring to two different types of individuals, and it makes an 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 says, “Happy is the one who fears God,” 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.” ‘You are happy’ in this world, and ‘it is good for you’ in the next world. Regarding the God-fearing person, however, it does not say ‘it is good for you.'”

This statement is surprising. Had the Sages noted that fear of Heaven is a valuable trait for the world to come, while self-sufficiency is important for living in this world, this would have been understandable. But they claimed just the opposite! Fear of Heaven reflects a form of happiness — “you are happy” — in this world; while self-sufficiency relates to the ultimate good — “it is good for you” — of the next world. How is that?

Two Mindsets

We usually think of self-reliance only in terms of livelihood. In fact, it is a mindset that relates to all aspects of life — material, intellectual, and spiritual. The Talmud is not just contrasting the hardworking farmer with the yeshiva student who is supported by charity. The Talmud is comparing two basic philosophies of life.

The first outlook 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 scholarship, character refinement, acts of kindness, 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 things.

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 this ‘fear of Heaven’ mentality? Why should one constantly struggle for excellence?

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 pleasure comes, not from resting, but from hard work. Our greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fruit of our own labors. Our happiest moments are when we finally attain hard-earned goals. This deeply-felt sense of fulfillment is innate to human nature.

In fact, of all our inherent ethical qualities, this particular pleasure is the loftiest. 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 one should rely on Divine assistance only in those situations when one is unable to help oneself.

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 its struggles with the body’s physical desires. The Kabbalists referred to these efforts as ‘fleeing’ from nehama dekisufa (the ‘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 may understand the Talmud’s comparison between the pious who fear Heaven and those who support themselves. The essence of fear of Heaven is to rely on Divine assistance. Paradoxically, fear of Heaven is a type of enjoyment — albeit, in its highest 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 that belongs 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, “a world which is pure good.” Only there will this trait be properly appreciated.

Even in its lowest form, self-sufficiency is praiseworthy. It is proper to honor those who have acquired this trait even in its simplest form, supporting their families through honest labor. Such individuals will continue to utilize this valuable trait in all areas, including spiritual pursuits.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 41-42)

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