Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. – Avot 2.20-21
Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the ancient sages. He was a rabbi of the generation between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE), a time of great upheaval for the Jewish People. Both of his parents were from priestly families, and he himself served in the Temple as a young man. More than one story about him mentions that his family was rich and that he enjoyed the “perks” that came from being a kohen.
However, Tarfon seems to have been a modest, empathetic man who had genuine concern for the poor. Whenever he received pidyon haben, ritual ransom money paid the priests to “redeem” first born sons, he returned it to the new parents. When he saw a bridal procession of very poor people, he asked his mother and sister to take their perfumes and cosmetics and offer them to the bride. He was creative: during a time of famine, he negotiated betrothals with 300 women so that he could legally share his tithes of priestly food with them!
Tarfon often disputed with Akiva, and he usually lost the argument.
One time they were sitting with other rabbis in an upper room in Lod, and they were asked: “Which is greater, study or action?” Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” –Kiddushin 40b
However, he was good spirited about such things, valuing learning over ego.
Another time, Rabbi Akiva, who was poor, asked him for money, saying he had a good investment for Tarfon. Tarfon gave him the money. Later on, he found out that Akiva had given it all away to needy people. Akiva quoted Psalms, reminding him that such gifts are an “everlasting possession.” Tarfon hugged and kissed Akiva, saying, “My teacher and leader! My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”
On another occasion, when he lost an argument with Akiva, he said, “Happy may be Abraham our father, having such a son as Akiba; Tarfon saw and forgot, but Akiba understood of his own accord. Whosoever parts with you, Akiba, parts with life itself!”
The Talmud tells us that he was very loving to his wife and his children, and fond of his mother. One source tells us that he was murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.
His most famous quotation is the one at the top of this page. He understood that it can be very stressful to live a life of Torah, that the expectations are high. At the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that effort and persistence are good in and of themselves.
I like to imagine Rabbi Tarfon teaching a student who is perhaps not as quick as the others. “Don’t worry, I see that you are making the effort!” he might say. Rabbi Tarfon understood what it was not to be the smartest guy in the room. He understood that a person’s worth lay in their character – as did his.