It’s a pleasant walk I’m taking this morning. The weather is sunny, cool and brisk, just the way I like it. For some reason ,I’m enjoying this walk more than usual. At first, I’m not sure why, but soon I realize. The road is freshly paved. It’s so even. No more cracks to trip over or make the walk uncomfortable. No more holes to sprain an ankle on. It’s a smooth stroll and I appreciate it.
But wait a minute. I wasn’t very happy when for days trucks were parked on this road, blocking my route. Every day I would grumble to myself, “How much longer are they going to be here?” Yes, I’m more than happy to enjoy the new pavement, but I wasn’t pleased to have the inconvenience of walking on a different road while others worked hard to fix this pavement.
Welcome to the 21st century, when people are used to having conveniences but don’t appreciate the effort it takes to get them. And while both my parents were from Europe and I received a chinuch from the old country, I’m still very much a pampered American. It reminds me of a story.
What a strange case it was, a din Torah that was brought before the venerable Berezhaner Rov, Rav Shalom Mordechai Hakohen Schwadron, grandfather and namesake of the famous maggid of Yerushalayim. It was considered a great accomplishment and honor to receive semicha from the rov. His vast knowledge in all areas of Torah was astounding, and now, during this unusual litigation, those present were sure to get a glimpse of his phenomenal bekius.
The din Torah was about a group of workers hired by a Jewish landowner who were suddenly fired for no good reason. They worked hard, did what was expected of them, and didn’t goof off on the job. But they were fired anyway without any prior warning and now they couldn’t find any other employment. Hence, they filed their grievance in bais din to either get rehired or be paid reparations.
They arrived in the Jewish courtroom and stood before the rov and two other dayanim, followed shortly after by the landowner. As the claimants in this case, they were told to state their case first. One of them related: “We fulfilled our tasks diligently, never hearing a complaint. One fine day, during our lunch break, when we finished our meal, we took out our jars of toothpaste and brushed our teeth, not realizing that we were being observed. Our boss was watching and flew into a sudden rage. ‘What?! You brush your teeth? You’re all fired!’
“We looked at him incredulously. What could possibly be wrong with brushing our teeth, especially since it wasn’t done during work time, but rather during our lunch break? But he just continued ranting, ‘Get off my property. You no longer work for me!’”
The dayanim now turned to the defendant. Would he deny the charges? And if not, what could he possibly have against the workers brushing their teeth during their lunch break? They asked him to explain what prompted him to fire them.
Without flinching, he said to the dayanim, “People who brush their teeth after meals are sissies. They’re soft and delicate, and too preoccupied with their physical needs. I want my workers to be hard-core men, not people who are soft and dainty, because they will be unwilling to get knee-deep in mud when the job calls for it.”
Those present in the bais din looked at this man as eccentric and over the top. Was this a reason to fire good workers? The dayanim, after hearing both sides, asked the litigants to step out for a while as they deliberated the case. The other two dayanim were sure that the workers were right, as there was no rational reason for the dismissal. They were quite surprised to hear the rov’s reaction.
“Yeh, yeh,” he said as he puffed on his pipe. “It could be that there is some basis for the landowner’s claim.”
The dayanim looked at the rov incredulously. “What?! His taanah seemed so ridiculous!”
“Yeh, yeh. It’s a befeireshe Gemara.”
“A befeireshe Gemara?!” These dayanim, gaonim in their own right, wondered where such a Gemara could be. Immediately, they started leafing through Shas in their heads, trying to find it.
“It’s a Gemara in Maseches Shabbos,” said the rov.
“Shabbos? What connection could this possibly have with Shabbos?” they wondered as they reviewed the bletter by heart. But they couldn’t find it.
“It’s in perek Bameh Beheimah.”
Again, the rabbonim perused the perek, but they came up with nothing.
Finally, the rov explained. The Gemara in the fifth perek of Shabbos (54a) quotes: “‘Shlomo built the two buildings, the Temple of Hashem and the king’s palace.’ Chiram the king of Tzor had supplied Shlomo with cedar tree, cypress trees and gold according to his desire. Then Shlomo Hamelech gave Chiram twenty cities in the land of Galil. Chiram left Tzor to see the cities that Shlomo had given him and they were not acceptable in his eyes. He said, ‘What are the cities you have given me, my brother?’ ‘And he called them the land of Cabul, which is its name to this day’ (Melachim I 9:10-14).
“What is the meaning of Cabul? Rav Huna said, ‘Cities that were inhabited by people wrapped in silver and gold.’
“Rava asked, ‘Is this a reason for Chiram to be dissatisfied with his present?’
“Rav Huna answered: ‘Yes. Because they were rich and pampered, they were too delicate to work hard.’”
“So we see,” said the rov, “that indeed this landowner might have a valid point. If the workers are so dainty, in his eyes they will not be up to working hard.”
While the actual p’sak of the bais din is not known, when the other two dayanim heard this, they were flabbergasted at the rov’s phenomenal bekius and his ability to immediately apply this Gemara to the case of the tooth-brushing workers.
• • • •
Now, of course, we in the 20th century would not consider someone who brushes his teeth overindulgent and weak, as we know that basic oral hygiene is a necessity. Ignore your teeth and they will go away. But the idea conveyed by the Gemara is clear. While riches are definitely a blessing, they could also be detrimental for a person. If he pampers himself and his life is spent seeking enjoyment, he is weakened. And when hard work and toughness is called for, it is difficult for him to adapt to the situation and he cannot face the challenge.
For someone growing up in America today, it is hard to picture what life was like just one hundred years ago. Comforts that we take for granted were not even a dream at the time. Nowadays, when the weather turns cold, you just move a switch to turn on central heating. My mother recalls that in Romania, her house was warmed by a furnace for which they had to chop wood. Often, they had to buy it from a vendor who would come selling door to door. If the wood was damp, the house filled with smoke. Only the area closest to the furnace was really warm; the rest of the house was cold.
When we enter a bais medrash in the morning during the winter, it is nice and warm. During the summer, it is air conditioned. In previous generations, there was frost in the bais medrash during the winter. Today, one goes to a hot steaming mikvah in the morning. Not so long ago, there was a glaze of ice on the surface of mikvaos. And in places where there were no indoor mikvaos, many would break through the ice of a frozen river and immerse themselves in the water. I remember reading a moving account of an elderly man whose family pleaded with him not to be toivel in the icy river because it was detrimental to his health. But how he couldn’t enter a Yom Tov without doing so? How relieved his family was when he came back from the river without any ill effects.
There are so many food products available that make it much easier to cook and at the same time overindulge food. Microwave ovens allow us to have instant meals without having to wait long. Transportation is so much more advanced that you can be at the other end of the world in no time. You can order any product online and have it in a jiffy. These are all great amenities that make our lives more pleasant.
At the same time, what happens when we are given a task that is much more complicated? Do we have the patience to spend time and tackle the problem? Are we willing to invest the hard work to get things done? Or do we shy away from challenges, not willing to get involved because we are used to having it easy? In previous generations, when they lacked all of the amenities we enjoy today, people worked much harder. And so, when it came to ruchniyus, they were able to work harder as well, attaining great heights.
Learning the parshiyos of the avos and imahos, we see clearly how they served Hashem even under the most trying circumstances. Avrohom Avinu, at the age of ninety-nine, had just had his bris milah. One can imagine that he was weakened and in pain. Yet, he sat by the opening of his tent during a heat wave, with no air-conditioning, waiting for guests. And when Hashem finally sent him three malochim as guests, he jumped up and ran towards them, ignoring the pain. He himself ran to slaughter the cattle and prepare meat for his guests. And he stood over them as they ate, taking care of all their needs. For every single one of his actions, he was rewarded for eternity.
In the merit of Avrohom saying, “Let some water be brought,” his children received water in the midbar, springs of water in Eretz Yisroel, and, l’asid lavo, spring water will flow out of Yerushalayim. In the merit of saying, “Wash your feet,” the Yidden will be able to cleanse themselves of their impurities and sins. And in the merit of his saying, “And recline beneath the tree,” the Yidden were given the Ananei Hakavod in the midbar, the mitzvah of sukkah, and special protection from Hashem at the End of Days. In the merit of saying, “I will fetch a morsel of bread,” the Yidden were given monn in the midbar, special crops in Eretz Yisroel, and a unique abundance of grain l’asid lavo (Bereishis Rabbah 48:10).
There is no act that goes unnoticed. Every good deed is repaid, and “lefum tzara agra” (Avos 5:26). The reward is in proportion to the exertion. Hard work brings dividends. At a time when society is looking for Easy Street and everything to be given out for free, we should welcome hard work, for it will pay great dividends, beyond what we can imagine.