In the beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, we read of God’s command to Avraham to leave his parents’ home and journey “to a land that I will show you.” Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39), comments that God did not initially inform Avraham where he was going, “in order to give him reward for each step.” Not knowing his destination made Avraham’s journey more difficult, and hence the reward for obeying God’s command was greater. The Midrash is teaching us that embarking on a challenging endeavor is more difficult when we do not know precisely how or when the process will be completed, and thus in the case of a mitzva, our reward is greater when we do not know ahead of time when the process will end.
We can perhaps gain deeper insight into the Midrash’s comment in light of Chazal’s interpretation of the command in Sefer Vayikra (25:43), “Lo tirdeh bo be-ferekh” – not to overwork one’s servant. One of the forms of labor proscribed by this command, as explained in Torat Kohanim, is to impose upon one’s servant a task without informing him of its duration. The example given is, “Dig under the vine until I return” – where the servant does not know for how long he will have to dig. Issuing such a command is cruel and unjust, because – perhaps among other reasons – it is not geared toward a particular result. Telling a worker to produce a certain outcome is reasonable; telling a worker to work indefinitely, without specifying an objective, is oppression. The goal, at least as it appears, is simply to force the servant to work, and not to provide a valuable service for the master, and such a command is thus regarded as cruelty.
When it comes to our service to the Almighty, however, this is not the case. God does not need us to “achieve” anything. Anything we can do, He can do infinitely better. In our relationship to God, then, the goal is, indeed, for us to work. The practical end result is not nearly as vital as the fact that we are engaged in “work” commanded to us by the Almighty. This in itself is a great privilege and the fulfillment of our purpose in the world, irrespective of the practical outcome. And thus while imposing unlimited labor upon a worker is improper, we are privileged to be able to “work” unlimitedly in our service of God.
The Midrash here reminds us never to despair if we do not see the practical results of our efforts, if we do not see the “end” of our hard work. Each and every step is inherently valuable, for the process in this case is an end unto itself, and not merely a means to achieving a specific result.