Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is an anthology on the art of wise living. One of its notable sayings is a proverb of three Aramaic words – l’fum tza’ara agra, “According to the effort is the reward” or “According to the pain is the gain” (5:26).
The author was Ben Heh-Heh, a convert and disciple of Hillel. His difficult decision to leave Roman society in order to become a Jew reflected his belief that anything important requires effort but is proved worthwhile in the end.
His advice is especially pertinent in the lead-up to Rosh HaShanah, when God assesses His creation and we assess our own achievements and failures.
So often in the past year – and in every year – we have tried the easy way. We have looked for a maximum of reward for a minimum of effort. Finally of course we have sadly recognised that nothing really worthwhile was ever attained without perseverance and hard work.
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
The artist Whistler, when asked why he charged such high fees, said that he charged not for the few hours’ work of painting but for the lifetime of experience which trained him to become a skilled artist.
The Kotzker Rebbe made a similar point about the art of prayer. “Why do the prayers one utters seem so ineffective?” he was asked.
His answer was that just as a workman can take all day to prepare for the job he does (for example, a woodcutter spends hours sharpening his saw and only a short time actually cutting the wood), so prayer, too, is a craft for which one has to prepare painstakingly and carefully.