Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 128: Striving for Excellence


אַשְׁרֵי כָּל-יְרֵא ה', הַהֹלֵךְ בִּדְרָכָיו. יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ, כִּי תֹאכֵל, אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ.

“Happy are all who fear God, who follow in His ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; you will be happy and it will be good for you.” (Psalms 128:1-2)

The Fruit of Your Labor

According to the Talmud, the psalm is referring to two different types of individuals, and it makes an astonishing claim about the importance of self-reliance:

“One who supports himself with his own labors is greater than one who fears Heaven.
About a God-fearing individual, it says, “Happy are all who fear God,” while regarding one who lives from his own labor, it says, “You will eat the fruit of your labor; you will be happy and it will be good for you.” “You will be happy” in this world, and “it will be good for you” in the next world. Regarding the God-fearing person, however, it does not say that “it will be good for you.””

This statement of the Sages is surprising. Had they noted that piety 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 the exact 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 commonly think of self-reliance only in terms of livelihood. In fact, it is a mindset that relates to all our goals, whether material, intellectual, or spiritual. The Talmud is not just contrasting the hardworking farmer with the yeshiva student who is supported by charity. It is comparing two basic philosophies of life.

The first approach is that we should do our utmost to succeed, using our best efforts and talents. This trait may be found in industrious entrepreneurs, world-class athletes, and dedicated scholars, all of whom enjoy the benefits of their hard-earned labors. This work ethic applies to all areas, including the spiritual. When we devote our energies to grow in Torah scholarship, character refinement, generosity, and so on, we exhibit the trait of self-reliance.

The second attitude, as typified by God-fearing piety, ultimately boils down to a passive reliance on Divine intervention. The pious mindset does not reject human effort, but is willing to settle for the minimum exertion needed. 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 wisdom. He will not struggle to achieve depth in Torah knowledge, nor greatness in other spiritual pursuits.

But what is so terrible with this pious mentality of relying on God? Why should we constantly struggle for excellence?

Bread of Shame

Were we to believe the sales pitches of travel agents, life’s ultimate pleasure would be to relax 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 labors. Our happiest moments are when we attain hard-earned goals. This deeply-felt sense of fulfillment is innate to human nature.

In fact, of all our innate ethical qualities, this particular pleasure is the loftiest. Our choosing to take the initiative to better 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 its struggles with the body’s physical desires. The Kabbalists referred to these efforts as avoiding nehama dekisufa — the “bread of shame,” the embarrassment experienced when receiving an undeserved handout. True good is when we are able to support ourselves through our own efforts.

Good of the World to Come

Now we may understand the Talmud’s comparison between the God-fearing pious and those who toil to support themselves. The essence of fear of Heaven is relying 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 pleasantness of this trait — “Happy are all who fear God” — is a pleasure 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 on Berakhot 8a)

Illustration image: Farmer at Kfar Hassidim Ploughing a Field, 1937