With an Eye on Eternity - Chapter 4

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With an Eye on Eternity

Chapter 4

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4. The workings of Reward and Punishment

It has been stated that the species of man is unique among all other species in that man was allotted free-choice, and he was empowered to channel and bring down through his actions the influences of the upper world. Consequently man possesses an additional facet which cannot be found in any other species: man's actions are recompensed measure for measure. This recompense is divided into two parts:

one) In this world (olam hazeh).

two) In the world to come (olam haba).

The recompense in the world to come works in this manner: the level of true goodness which is assigned to a person is dependent upon the deeds which one has accomplished in this world. "Goodness" refers to a state of closeness to the Creator, and man will forever delight in this state. Such recompense in the world to come is also divided into two parts:

one) that which is awarded in the world of souls (olam haneshamos) [after death] and

two) that which is awarded in the world of the future after the resurrection (olam hatechiyah), a subject which we have yet to address.

Recompense in this world (olam hazeh) is based upon one's deeds, and it is by way of them that success or various types of suffering are decreed upon man. However, one must realize that the principal recompense is that ultimate good which the righteous will be privileged to receive in the future world (l'atid l'vo) [for this lasts forever]. By the same token the most awesome punishment is to lose out completely on this true goodness.

There are mitzvos which, according to the Creator's just judgment, are worthy of being recompensed both in the world to come and in this world in the form of successes and benefits during life. So too, there are misdeeds for which, in accordance with just Divine Judgment, it is fitting that one be punished both in this world and the world to come.

On the other hand, there are mitzvohs which Judgment warrants should be recompensed in the world to come and not in this world. Likewise there are misdeeds which Judgment demands should be punished only in the world to come and not in this world. There are also mitzvohs which Divine Judgment requires to be recompensed entirely in this world, after which there then remains nothing for their owners in the world to come. Similarly, in the realm of transgressions there are those which Judgment warrants must be completely paid for in this world and their perpetrators not be punished whatsoever in the world to come. And Hashem, the righteous Judge, judges all in Divine perfection and in a perfectly just manner devoid of any unfairness whatsoever.

Just as both the body and the soul execute all actions through a joint effort - both the good ones and the bad ones - so too fair recompense warrants that they be paid together. However, because of the transgression of Adam, the first man, death was decreed upon the whole species of man in a manner which disallows reaching higher attachment to the Divine without first dying. The reason for this is that the spiritual contamination of wrongdoing has been internalized in man. As long as this spiritual pollution is contained within him, it is impossible for him to become attached to the most High. The impurity does not depart from man until death occurs and he returns to dust; only then does he become cleansed.

At that time [upon the resurrection of the dead] he will return and be reconstructed in a perfectly pure form. After the reconstruction, his soul will be returned to him and his life renewed. Together [the body and soul] will shine eternally with the light of life. The extent to which body and soul enjoy genuine goodness is determined by the deeds they performed in their earthly life. This is the concept of the Resurrection of the Dead (techiyas hamaisim) which is known to every Jew. During that period in which the body lies interred in the earth, it disintegrates and loses its original form. The soul, in contrast, remains in a place of repose if it merits this. The place of repose is the world of souls (olam haneshamos). In that world, the soul attains a portion of what it will attain in the time to come (l'atid lavo) after the resurrection of the dead. What it attains is commensurate with the deeds it accomplished during life.

[There are four points which are relevant to "Reward and Punishment" and "Free-Choice" (bechirah) which need to be clarified here.

(1) Is there any rational basis for thinking, as most people do, that the purpose of life is primarily to enjoy and delight in the earthly pleasures of flesh, fortune, and fame?

(2) If all there is to life is the goal of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die," why should there be such inequality between men in the distribution of these desired commodities? If these are the commodities which represent genuine success and happiness in life why shouldn't everyone get a liberal helping of them?

(3) How can mortal man, whose narrow-lens perspective of time is generally focused on short segments of the past, present, and future, conceive and appreciate the idea of such a never-ending delight as that of eternity? How can he appreciate the quantitative aspects of it? His perspective, even when combined and extended to the whole panorama of world history, encompasses but several thousand years. Can such a man grasp even a fleeting vision of the timeless concept of eternity?

(4) How can a man whose interests in life are limited to gourmet foods, "a great time," and all the components of the "good life" which allegedly lie at the end of the rat-race, possibly comprehend anything about the qualities of an eternity? Eternity of the soul signifies a state where enjoyments are neither swallowed, grasped, nor deposited or withdrawn from the bank. What does it mean to enjoy and delight in the ecstasies of the spirit in the absence of a mouth, hands, and a wallet? How can one utilize some earthly medium to get a semblance of the feel of this foreign and intangible state?


The Steipler Rav z"l sums up point one in this fashion:

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato (the RamChal) writes in his Mesilas Yeshorim:

It is most obvious to anyone who thinks rationally that it is illogical to believe that the ultimate purpose of man's creation was for his state in this world. After all, what does man's life consist of in this world. Where is that man who enjoys (undiluted) happiness and finds a full measure of peace in this world? 'The days of our years are but 70 and if by special strength, 80 years, and even then their high points are mixed with hardship and suffering' (Psalms 90:10).

All sorts of pain, sickness, and suffering plague him and, after all of this, comes death. You will not find one person in a thousand upon whom the world has lavished solely pleasure and peace. And moreover, even that rare individual who does achieve it, assuming that he were to live to the age of 1000 years, still passes on and takes leave of the world.

Whoever observes his surroundings with an honest eye can see that he himself and those around him spend a great deal of life's years in various states of hardship, pain, and sickness.3

Families with a large number of children often include one who is chronically ill and others who go through the gamut of children's diseases. One has a stomach ache, one has a cold, still others have the flu, and so on and so forth. Illnesses frequently are contagious and usually make the rounds among all. The evidence is there to see - the epidemiologists and public health experts have the date to prove this conclusion.

The Chovohs HaLivovohs in his classic work of a thousand years ago deals with the need or place for childhood diseases in the design of the kind and wise Creator's world. What reason can there be to burden innocent infants and tender-aged children with the pain and suffering of a roster of diseases which strike particularly at them? He explains that the purpose is so that the child will learn early in life that this world is not a "ball" or amusement park. Man has no security or guarantee that he will not be touched by hardship and pain in life - this message the child receives early in life in the only way he can absorb the lesson and remember it for life - through his body. This lesson is invaluable enough to warrant all the suffering involved to teach it.

Most people are troubled and suffer from a lack of sufficient income to meet their needs and often are burdened with debt. Therich, who lack nothing financially, have their troubles too. "He who amasses possessions amasses worries" (Pirkei Avos).

Envy and self-reproach must be added to the long list of life's troubles which most of us suffer. Envy eats away at man, and self-reproach cuts him down. How often, too, do people inflict pain by subjecting themselves to post mortems? ("Why didn't I think of answering this way or making that move at the right time?") Sometimes we face the emptiness of boredom; at other times we struggle with the burning desire for something which is not within our power to attain. We fear and worry about the future and with trepidation take stock of our own personal situation and that of our family. We also worry about the state of the particular country in which we live: Its economy, crime statistics, military preparedness, etc. Above all, the drive for honor and recognition - something from which the average man is not spared and which he experiences almost daily. This desire is experienced in relation both to one's family and his acquaintances.

The trials and tribulations of child-rearing then follow. In the childhood years there are the diapers and sleepless nights, rashes and teething pains, bruises and falls, the childhood diseases, and the disciplinary and educational problems suffered at home and at school. When our children are grown up, the intensity of our love for them is paralleled by the worry and aggravation we experience when we find we are unable to guide them and help them as we would like.

Although it may be depressing, for the sake of truth we should examine the somber side of the coin first. When old age approaches, we sense that we are being pushed out of our established lifetime positions and feel that we are becoming redundant. Yet, we still try to hang on to our status. However, little by little we get pushed into a corner, and with our own eyes we see others inheriting our place. Then comes the period when we become a burden to our family and to all of those over whom we previously reigned. Following this, typically we develop a serious need for medical treatment for an extended period of time until the day arrives when we are carried off to a final dwelling place in this world (l'bais olamo). When approaching this juncture we are seized by fear and inner trembling; it is hard to face the imminent departure one must soon make. A feeling of hopelessness overtakes us and is often compounded by the ensuing senility which leaves us physically and mentally a broken reed. When all this is over, life then ends, and we are ushered out by the throes of death (r"l).

Now, one may well ask, "Why was man created to live a life intermixed with anguish and joy, pain and pleasure, ups and down, and a myriad of changes most of which are made up of negative happenings - troubles and heartaches? What is the point of all of this?


When we look at life from an entirely different perspective, we can begin to understand why man was handed such a difficult lot in life. The Torah reveals the secret of life and makes it commons knowledge available to everyone: Man's life on earth serves only as the gateway or corridor to a higher and better life, one which lasts forever and which has no parallel in earthly life. The whole of man's life upon this earth was designed by the Creator as the most suitable preparation for a world of eternity. The entrance requirements for that world are based solely on one's very own merits and deeds.

It is extremely important for man to find ways which can help him to feel more tangibly the Universally accepted concept of the eternity of the soul (hashores hanefesh), which simply means that only the body disintegrates, but the soul continues to exist after death. From what happens to man after death, we can understand better the priceless value of earthly life and its purpose.

This fundamental principle is demonstrated in the Torah, the Prophets and Kesuvim, and the Kabbalah. Kabbalah represents the total body of Divine knowledge which has been passed on in an unbroken chain from generation to generation, staring with Moshe Rabeinu who received it directly from G-d. Man innately senses that such a destiny awaits the soul, and man's reasoning faculties also provide proofs for this basic Jewish belief. Many books are dedicated to this end; they systematically structure the concept of eternal life logically, philosophically, and by utilizing a wealth of data on metaphysical occurrences. Cases now number in the thousands, and they rule out any doubts on the matter. One of the most useful and the classic on the subject is a book written over 300 years ago: Nishmas Chaim written by Rabbi Menashe ben Yisroel, zt"l.

After one understands and fully realizes that his soul remains alive infinitely after he takes leave of this world, he should find it impossible even to imagine that his purpose in the world is merely to enjoy the material pleasures of this world. After all, a full lifespan upon earth which has been crammed with those pleasures is no more than a fleeting 70-80 years, while after death his soul maintains a life of the spirit for billions of years, with no end in sight. Of what significance is 70 years when compared with eternity? From this vintage point, one should be able to see clearly that the purpose of earthly life must tie in and have some common ground with that everlasting life of the soul in its timeless world. He can then understand that this world serves only as the bridge over which one must pass in order to reach eternal life on the other side. His toll fees take the form of observances of the Creator's directives which can only be performed over the course of an earthly lifetime.


Point two): The Torah concept of free-choice makes up one of the main pillars of Torah. It is directly linked to the fundamental principle of reward and punishment. Without free-choice, the whole of Torah falls away. If man lacks the ability to choose his road in life, then he is but a puppet manipulated by others and should not be subject to reward and punishment for his good or bad behavior, for it would not be of his own doing. A large number of religious and secular fatalistic philosophies still remain entrenched in the world. Some are old and date back thousands of years; some appear to be new, but in reality are merely recycled with more sophisticated packaging to fit the times. People who think in terms of such a system believe that man is nothing more than a piece of flotsam tossed about on the seas of life, with no choice in the matter. The advocates of this philosophy use it as an excuse to shed responsibility for any wrongdoing, and it makes it possible for them to legitimize a life whose goal is to "do your own thing."

However, the Torah teaches that since man was given the power of free choice, he is liable for all his actions, and he is rewarded and punished for his actions. The ultimate goal for man is in the world of eternity - to enjoy and delight in it. The concept that this is the real purpose of man's creation serves as a reflection of the justice and fairness which we find throughout the Creator's world. In short, man's ability to acquire the things which really count in life rests in his own hands. Every man then has the very same opportunity to attain the highest spiritual levels both in this world and in the eternal world. In this sense, where the stakes are big and where it really counts, we many say "All men are created equal."

However, if the purpose of man's life upon earth were to revel in all of the enjoyments of the material world which he possibly could - along with its successes and glories - then the whole world would make absolutely no sense. For example, are the endowments of men equal and fairly distributed? What can you say to justify the creation of weak men, those who are sickly and delicate, those with mediocre or low I.Q., or the ugly ones and wretchedly poor ones? How much chance do people in any one of these categories have? Can they achieve the abundance of material possessions and desirables of this world: fame, fortune, popularity, and the opportunities to experience and savor all varieties of pleasures and enjoyments?

Why should one man be born crippled while another is healthy and strong, one blind or deaf while another possesses 20/20 vision and perfect hearing? Why should one woman come into the world and be assigned the role in life of a poorly endowed specimen of womanhood while another enters life as a classical beauty? Why is one born into fabulous wealth while another is cast in the role of abject poverty or locked into miserable circumstances from which he can never free himself? Why is one born a genius or exceptionally bright while another is born slow or dull-witted? Can any of these ill-fated and deprived individuals obtain a share of those earthly pleasures which the world has to offer which is equal to those of their more fortunate opposites? Of course they cannot, except in rare cases!

If the benefits of human life were limited to what man can enjoy in this world, then the universe would be nothing more than a diabolical instrument, cruelly doling out a windfall of desirables to some and only a pack of troubles to others.

However, because the role each man is assigned in life is only a temporary one and only lasts a short period of time, what difference does it make if during the course of the first 70 years of life one is poor or ugly, weak or of mediocre intelligence? After all, for the billions and trillions of years which only serve to introduce eternity, he will enjoy spiritual delights which the wildest flights of imagination cannot fathom!

In that everlasting world there will be no more ugliness, poverty, sickness, and pain; in that eternal world one finds only beauty, strength, wisdom, and the riches treasures of the spirit. All that is asked of man in his earthly life is that he accept with humility the particular role chosen for him to play. He must consider all of his intrinsic endowments as his Divinely assigned tools and exert maximum effort to use them to achieve what is within his potential. What he has to do is blue-printed for him in clear directives from his own Creator in the divine, life-instruction book, the Torah. To help him understand the Torah and enable him to make his way with it successfully, man can call upon innumerable experts who will freely advise him every step of the way.

After he has of his own volition chosen his course of action, using his creator's guide book, he will have achieved the same end as do the strong, wealthy, and brilliant. In fact, those who are poorly endowed can actualize their full potential more easily and with less effort than can the more abundantly endowed. From the latter, the Creator expects to see greater accomplishments by the time they arrive at their individual end goals, for they have been handed at birth a finer set of tools with which to work.


Every man is given an equal opportunity to achieve his maximum potential in life. This places the mini-endowed on par with the most gifted. That is exactly what the Rambam means when he states, "....Every man has the ability to be a tzaddik like Moshe Rabeinu or a roshoh4 like Yerovom. Each person can be a wise man or a fool, merciful or cruel, stingy of charitable, and the same applies to all human traits...."

When the Rambam tells us that each of us has the opportunity to be like Moshe Rabeinu, he does not have in mind attaining Moshe Rabeinu's one-of-a-kind statue. In regard to his unique state as a prophet, the Torah itself states that there will never rise among the Jewish people a prophet of the caliber of Moshe. His wisdom and closeness to Hashem opened for him all the gates of upper world which are possible for a mortal to enter. Such carte blanche entry is not within the reach of any other man, and the Rambam does not have this kind of equality in mind.

The Rambam's intent is only to say that Moshe Rabeinu's self-earned greatness, as is the essential greatness of every tzaddik and gaon, was not made up of the rich allotment of endowments with which he came into the world. True, he was born with a wondrous intellect and a phenomenal package of various spiritual gifts stored up in his soul. This set of endowments was also accompanied by the unique physical strength needed to apply them. However, all of these qualities were not the product of Moshe's own labors and efforts. These were all gifts of Hashem and were given to him to use for the benefit of the whole nation. They constitute the superior endowments needed to produce the giants of each generation who serve as leaders of their people.

Moshe Rabeinu's real greatness can be evaluated only as a function of his own labors and acquisitions in life. It is these self-earned efforts which have brought for him his singular share of eternity, and the same is true of the self-earned efforts of all other great men. Their accomplishments in life derive from maximum use of their potential during life. Great men maximize their full potential by combining their effort, drive, interest, and strength. They utilize fully their dazzling array of G-d given endowments for the right purposes. This is what is credited to their personal file of accomplishment and represents the true purpose of man's creation in the world: to earn his eternity because of his own output. What comes forth from man without effort and which is wholly the product of his natural, gifted abilities has little value in the eyes of Hashem.

The same applies to the modestly endowed individual. The job in life his Creator expects him to fulfill is the full utilization of all the human assets he was given. By dedicating his heart, strength and interest to the harnessing of his particular human resources for higher purposes, and after succeeding to do so, he, too, then becomes a Moshe Rabeinu. The common denominator which links him and Moshe Rabeinu is that he, no less than Moshe Rabeinu, has achieved his full potential by maximizing those resources and abilities with which he was born. Whatever is out of the range of his abilities is not expected of him.

If his intellectual endowments are of the kind which make him suited to be nothing more than an unskilled laborer (for example, a woodcutter) or to master some simple craft (for example, tailoring or shoemaking), then it is still within the scope of his potential to become the most honest and holy woodcutter, tailor, or shoemaker who lives. He has the opportunity to reach up and carve out or stitch together for himself, the finest character and the purest heart and round himself out by developing a wholesome belief and trust in Hashem. With his modest set of tools he can become a man of warm chesed who aids his fellow man and attains great heights in his communion with Hashem.

After utilizing in the highest manner he can, all of the meager gifts which were allotted him, he is then no less beloved to Hashem and no less successful in life than Moshe Rabeinu. In this world, of course, the respect paid Moshe Rabeinu and accorded him by his people is entirely of another coin. His fabulous gifts of personal resources with which he has been endowed at birth have lifted him to towering heights. Such stature warrants reverence, awe, and formal respect, for it represents the majesty of Torah greatness. However, in the World to Come, where the temporary roles one plays in life are stripped away and the earthly need for honor and formality to bolster Torah authority is no longer necessary, the shoemaking tzaddik or the wood-cutting tzaddik will have a special place in Gan Eden which is equivalent to that of Moshe Rabeinu.

Take the following simple illustration: When one presses a light switch which controls a 15-watt bulb, the bulb can only provide 15 watts of light. This bulb is then functioning at its maximum level. When used as a night light or a closet-light, the wattage is just right. On the other hand, if for any reason it produces only 10 watts of light, it would not be functioning optimally. Should one have a 1,000 watt spotlight and use it either for the outdoors or for some other special purpose, it must produce a full 1,000 watts of light to function optimally, otherwise it is considered deficient. When the spotlight does illuminate at its 1,000 watt level, it is no more valuable and useful than is a 15-watt bulb which is placed in a location which requires only 15 watts of light. Thus, each bulb serves its particular purpose when it works at its full capacity. Similarly, in our world, we have a need both for brilliant, "1,000-watt" people who can light up larger or darker areas and for dim, "15-watt" people who can serve only in more modest ways. The Creator treasures both to the same degree, as long as each serves to his maximum ability and fulfills His respective intended purpose.

The Gemorah Taanis (21b) discusses this equality in the eyes of Hashem - of the little people and the towering giants - and the bottom line is that in their respective places in the world to come, they are equal.


"Abba the surgeon received daily greetings from the Heavenly Academy (mesivta derakiya)." [This academy is made up of spiritual entities of the upper world. A segment of these spiritual entities consists of people of a higher stature who have passed on and who are involved in the study of Torah on the highest and deepest level. They are not subject to any interference and distractions from physical bodies and material substances. Some 1,600 years ago, when the great and saintly giants of Torah still walked the earth, it was a symbol of stature and greatness to receive such greetings from the upper world. Communicating such greetings was a way of informing the recipient that his superior knowledge of Torah or exceptional deeds were cherished by the greatest of all connoisseurs - those residing in the purity and inner sanctum of the upper world. Such recognition indicated that one was traveling on the roads of truth without making detours or deviations].

"Abbaye used to receive greetings every Shabbos, and Rava [only] on the eve of every Yom Kippur. Abbaye felt dejected because of Abba the surgeon. [Abba the surgeon received such greetings daily, although only a layman. In contrast, Abbaye, who was considered one of the greats of his time, received them but once a week. Consequently, Abbaye felt that his Torah accomplishments were considered so mediocre that even Abba the layman was far ahead of him in spiritual attainment.]

People said to Abbaye: 'This honor is accorded to Abba [on a plane higher than your own] because you cannot equal his achievements.' [The Gemorah then asks:] What were the special deeds of Abba the surgeon? When he performed bloodletting [the common surgical treatment of the times for many types of ailments] he would separate the men from the women. In addition, he had a special cloak which had a slit at the shoulder and an attached cup [for catching the blood which was being extracted]. Whenever a woman patient came to him, he would place the cloak on her shoulder in order not to expose her body [because of a most sensitive and lofty level of modesty]. He also had a special place [outside of his office] where patients deposited their fees in privacy for his services. Those who could afford to pay put their fees there, and those who could not were thereby spared embarrassment. Whenever a Torah scholar came to him for treatment, not only would Abba the surgeon not accept a fee but also when the scholar left, Abba the surgeon would hand him money and declare: 'Go and regain your strength with this.' [For after a bloodletting treatment it is necessary not only to eat more but also to eat more nourishing foods.]

One day Abbaye sent two scholars to visit Abba and test him. [He was interested in finding out first hand the extent of Abba's greatness]. Abba received the scholars, served them food and drink, and in the evening he prepared mattresses for them to sleep. [The mattresses he offered them were made up of expensive woolen craftwork piled together so as to serve as makeshift mattresses. Apparently he had no extra mattresses available at the time and did not hesitate to turn such valuable items into the best possible bedding substitutes for use by his honored guests.]

In the morning the scholars rolled up the mattresses and took them to the market place. There they ran into Abba their host and said to him: 'Sir, kindly appraise these for us. What would you say they are worth?' [offering them to him for personal purchase]. He replied, giving them a figure. They said to him: 'Perhaps they are worth more?' He replies: 'This is what I originally paid for them.' [They tested him with these questions in order to see whether or not he would suspect them of having stolen the mattresses (which appeared to be the case on the surface). Their intent was also to observe when offered to him for sale, whether or not he would lie about their true value in order to recover them more easily.]

[Finished with the test] the two scholars then said to him: 'They are yours. We removed them from your house. Please tell us of what did you suspect us?' He replied: 'I said to myself: Perhaps the Rabbis needed money to redeem captives (pidyon shevuim) [which is a matter of saving human lives] and you were ashamed to ask me outright for them.' [Because they were expensive household belongings, most people would find it difficult to part with them and offer them as a tzedakah donation. Therefore, Abba thought the scholars might have been reluctant to ask.

All of this analysis mirrored the pureness of heart and "good eye" of Abba the surgeon. He possessed a mind-set which enabled him to interpret everything the Torah scholars did in a pure and wholesome way. Abba interpreted their actions in a positive way even through it required quite a stretch of the imagination to work out a set of circumstances which could justify such actions.]

The scholars concluded by saying to him: 'Sir, take them back, now.' ['For we had no intention of taking them from you. We only used them to test you.] He answered: 'From the moment I noticed that the mattresses were missing I dismissed them from my mind and dedicated them to charity...' ['Therefore you must keep them.']

Rabbi Berkoa Chozaah used to frequent the market of Bei-Lafet where Eliyahu HaNavi often appeared to him. [This is also an honor accorded only to people who are classified in the upper world as men of great stature.] Once he asked Eliyahu: 'Is there anyone in this market who has a reserved place in the world to come?' [the Maharsho explains that Rabbi Berkoa's query to Eliyahu was whether there was someone here who had a special, elite place awaiting him in the world to come because of his extraordinary accomplishment. The reason extraordinary accomplishments were singled out is because every single Jew who observes Torah properly - even if only in a "middle-road" or average fashion - has at least aminimal share in the world to come, as stated by the Mishna in Sanhedrin (90a). Apparently those involved in the market place of Bei-Lafet were simple, hardworking people with no one seemingly outstanding in Torah knowledge or deeds.]

Eliyahu replied: 'No.' Meantime Rabbi Berkoa caught sight of a man wearing black shoes [meaning laced with black laces which was specifically the custom of gentile dress of that time and therefore forbidden by Torah law to Jews] and wore no tzitzis on the corners of his garment. Eliyahu said to Rabbi Berkoa: 'This man has a reserved place in the world to come.' Rabbi Berkoa ran after the man and asked him, 'What is your occupation?' The man replied: 'Go, now, and come back tomorrow.' The next day he again asked him, 'In what are you involved? [The intent of Rabbi Berkoa's question was to find out the personal details of what this man did - so that he could pinpoint the kernel of greatness which brought him his right to a special share in the world to come and learn from it. The man apparently recognized the greatness of Rabbi Berkoa, a sage of Israel, and out of respect to him, told him all.]

'I am a jailer,' he began. 'I separate the men and women and place my bed between them so that they will not come to sin. When I see a Jewish girl upon whom the gentiles [the heads of the prison] cast their eyes, I risk my life to save her. Once there was amongst us a betrothed girl upon whom the gentiles set their eye. I therefore took residue of red wine and smeared it on her skirt, and I told them she was menstruating.' Rabbi Berkoa then asked the man; "Why is it that you have no tzitzis and why do you wear black shoes [laces]?' He replies, 'I come and go among the gentiles, and I do this so that they will not know that I am a Jew. When the gentiles make a harsh decree against Jews I inform the Rabbis, and they pray and thereby bring about the annulment of the decrees.'

Rabbi Berkoa then inquired about the delay, 'When I asked you, what is your occupation, why did you say to me 'Go now, and come back tomorrow?' He answered, 'At that time the gentiles had just issued a severe decree, and I thought I would first go and inform the Rabbis of it so that they could pray to G-d.'

In the meantime two men passed by and Eliyahu remarked, 'These two also have reserved places in the world to come.' Rabbi Berkoa then approached them and asked, 'What is your occupation?' They replied, 'We are jesters. We cheer-up people who are depressed. Furthermore, when we see two people quarreling we exert great effort to make peace between them!'"

In another vein, we can postulate that the human assets which serve as the best tools for the acquisition of material possessions in this world often impede the acquisition of the spiritual attainments and the fulfillment of man's true purpose upon which personal eternity is based. Countless men and women are side-tracked in life and fail to attain their higher purpose because of their unusually choice set of human assets. Specifically because of their handsomeness or beauty, intellectual brilliance, or wealth they may fail to meet the challenges of life. The sweet tastes of pleasures, success, or power which are fed to them on the golden spoons of gifted endowments have broken and even destroyed many of them.

Were such people to know how their "good fortune" would in the end affect their eternity, they would have been the first ones to beseech their Creator before birth (if they had been given the opportunity to do so) to assign them a mediocre set of human assets in place of the superior ones which were given them. However, only the Divine Wisdom knows all the reasons behind the particular distribution of roles to man.


Point three): To comprehend and grasp the concept of eternity is extremely difficult. Still, it is possible to project a powerful picture on the screen of our imagination which provides us with a sample of the nature of eternity. It was used by one of our great philosophers long ago and has become the classical illustration.

Imagine a large banquet hall completely filled from floor to ceiling with birdseed (which would number in the billions of tiny seeds). If every thousand years a bird flew into the window and carried off a single seed, then eventually the supply would dwindle down to nothing and the banquet hall would be completely emptied. Think of that period as an introduction to infinite times, for eternity continues for billions of trillions of years afterwards!

Point four): The average man is, for the most part, not interested in acquiring knowledge and wisdom in any area for the sheer value and enjoyment of the knowledge itself. Only when knowledge serves as a stepping stone to richer physically and material benefits and enjoyments does he have a serious interest in knowledge and pursue it. Because of this limitation it is very difficult to offer examples of the intangible pleasures of the soul which one has experienced in life and exemplify what is meant by "delights of the soul." Far removed from the thoughts of the average man is a place where the soul alone enjoys eternal spiritual ecstacy without a setting of earthly props.

Yet there have been many throughout the ages who have sought wisdom, and to this very day there are those who seek knowledge and wisdom for its own sake. They know enough to realize that those who become immersed in it and possess knowledge of great scope and depth do derive great pleasure from it. They know that the great intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, and, in particular, the greats of Torah, the tzaddikim and gaonim, live and breathe knowledge and wisdom like others breathe air. Those who live in the world of the mind and spirit are willing to forego the comforts, pleasures, and diversions which belong to the domain of the physical world in order to pursue their goals. In actuality, they do not forego anything and do not consider that they have sacrificed anything.

Most Torah giants are people endowed with all of those capacities which make for material success in life. These are people who have fine minds, shrewdness, drive, backbone, and a thorough understanding of people and the ways of the world. They have the potential to be successful in any business or professional vocation which they might choose to enter. Had they set their sights on it, their cups could have run over with a rich assortment of material acquisitions and all of the accouterments which normally accompany success.

Do you think that these people are naive when it comes to material delights or that they lack the capacity to enjoy them and therefore show little interest in them? On the contrary, precisely because they do know what the world of materialism has to offer and the limitations of its caresses and bear hugs, Torah giants turn their backs on it. The continuous flow of exhilarating enjoyments they receive when dealing with the world of true wisdom makes the enjoyments of the material world appear no more exciting than the joy a child derives building sand castles or blowing soap bubbles. A child, who knows no better, delights in such activities, but for the adult who has tasted more sophisticated pleasures, the child's actions constitute empty, unfulfilling pastimes.

The minds of great Torah scholars sail the seas of Torah. They constantly dive into its depths to bring up pearls of wisdom. Ask the Torah scholars if they would be willing to trade their knowledge for hundreds of millions of dollars or even billions of dollars. Ask them if they are to be pitied because of the modest and often impoverished life they live in order to dedicate their time to the study of Torah. Don't be surprised if they tell you that if you genuinely understood the ecstatic delight and pleasure which comes from learning Torah, you would feel sadness for those who treat life as a vehicle of nothing more than "fun" and "thrills." "You should feel compassion," he might tell you, "for all of those people whom the world considers to be squeezing the most out of life and enjoying it most."

The way such people spend their time is tantamount to a person who collects empty shells on a beach. The sands of man's time runs out quickly. Only those who know of nothing better can value collecting empty shells. If they were able to taste the delights of true wisdom, these people would very quickly abandon their beachcombing activities and focus their efforts on the pursuit of wisdom. The ex-shell collectors would seek pleasure in the enjoyments of the soul: the most exhilarating, fulfilling, and ecstatic experience available to man upon this earth!

Only those who (a) have extensive lines of communication to the upper world from whence wisdom emanates and (b) who industriously seek wisdom, enjoy the constant delights of the soul while upon this earth. The mind of man - the spaceship of the soul - serves as the connecting pipeline through which flows the Creator's Divine wisdom. Those who utilize this pipeline do so even for the enjoyments of secular knowledge - the exact sciences and their technologies, although the beamed rays are of another quality. The joy, fulfillment, and spiritual delights are not as intense or euphoric in nature. The reason for the difference is that their subject matter does not deal in the higher truths, the truths which are closest to G-d.

The Higher Truths begin with basic, rational, and common-sense ideas and concepts which deal with man's obligations in the world. These comprise the thoughts and actions by which a straight-thinking man should seek to live. This includes the world of ethics and philosophy which similarly rests on common sense, derech eretz; through these corridors man first enters the gates of truth and begins his ascent. The rungs at the epoge bring one to the Divine truths of the universe; these divine truths are beyond the realm of man's self-powered grasp and are all incorporated into the Torah. Man attains the closest possible contact with G-d by immersion in this higher area of classical Torah study. Direct communion with the Creator of wisdom comprises the greatest source of pleasure upon this earthly world and after death is magnified beyond comprehension in the world of the spirit. In that world no physical deterrents weaken the soul's capacity to link up with its Creator.

The Steipler Rav zt"l cites the joy experienced in doing a good deed (simchah shel mitzvoh) as an illustration of pleasures of the soul.

It is common knowledge, he says, that the intensity of the joy we experience is proportionate to our desire for and attraction to, a particular thing or event. When a man eagerly anticipates and strongly desires something, then his joy will be proportionately greater upon attaining it. When one neither desires nor looks forward to something, then its realization of acquisition means little and gives minimal joy.

Furthermore, the same applies to the avoidance of anything distasteful. When one is saved from something which he has greatly feared and which has caused him great concern, then his joy is intense. In contrast, when he is able to avoid something which moves him very little, successful avoidance elicits almost no joy.

Moreover, sometimes people may do a good thing, for example, a great mitzvoh, and even perform it with a pure heart and without any ulterior motives. Still, we may find that a particular man might not have initially pursued a specific mitzvoh nor eagerly awaited the opportunity to do that mitzvoh. He may have happened upon it only by chance, yet you will often see that his joy is still great. The accomplishment of the mitzvoh has become for him a source of intense delight.

Likewise, when one is exposed to a great temptation and he conquers his inclination to perpetrate a wrong, the joy which the victory creates in his soul brightens him up. The joy created by the victory is much greater in degree than is his fear of the sin. In fact, he may have been a hairsbreadth away from committing the sin and even remained unmoved by any fears of pangs of conscience.

Such phenomena can be observed even in someone in whom neither faith nor belief were inculcated and from whom a Torah education was withheld. The individual might have no conception of the value and gravity of mitzvohs and aveiros. (This assumes that the individual did not overly soil and contaminate his soul with serious transgressions and tumah. Serious transgressions bring with them tumah encrusted with spiritual char to such an extent that the joy no longer can come through.)

A classical example of this is when an opportunity to do something good arises and is performed with a pure heart and without any ulterior motives, for example saving innocent people from death. This happened often in the Nazi era. Many Jews who totally lacked Torah values saved fellow Jews and plucked them out of the very hands of death by putting up the necessary monies to save them or through other types of aid. Other common and very frequently encountered opportunities are the chances to bring joy to the hearts of downtrodden people. Among these are orphaned young men and women who need financial support to get married or start a business; or the broken man or woman who need immediate aid if they are to get back on their feet. The man who performs such mitzvohs will feel a tremendous surge of pleasure. Although the man neither awaited, anticipated, nor in practice sought out this kind of chesed, still when he performs it, he is warmed by the glow of elated joy and fulfillment.

What is the source of this joy which does not follow the cause-and-effect pattern we have pinpointed? Simply put, the man was privileged to fulfill a particular mitzvoh; the happiness it brings him is the product of a "soul experience." The soul enjoys the intense delight radiated by the mitzvoh. The spiritual ecstasy the man feels is something which cannot be measured even by comparing it to any of his greatest material or physical pleasures or achievements. He will remember the spiritual exhilaration and treasure it throughout his life. When he carried out the mitzvoh, it served at that moment as a source of attachment to his Creator, for it is from He Himself that man's soul originates. He (the Steipler Rav) concludes that the essence of this joy is therefore nothing other than the soul entering into a state of communion with the very presence of the Creator by way of doing something which He desires man to do.

The same applies to all enjoyments of the soul. They are more pleasurable, intense, and fulfilling than are any material or physical encounters. They are caused by a union of man with G-d by the only channel available to him to make this contact, the mitzvohs of the Torah.

In contrast, the material and physical pleasures and joys which we experience in this world constitute and originate from the creations which G-d has placed here in the world for our benefit.

A simple analytical exercise can bring home to us a fundamental, crystal-clear conclusion: it pays for us to give up or limit these pleasures which can be obtained from the creations and instead seek those which are available from the Creator of all creations. It is self-evident that we will find more joy in the Creator Himself - the source of all goodness, kindness and pleasures in the world - than we will in His creations. When one draws this simple conclusion and thinks about it, it helps him to aim in life for the joys, pleasures, and the fulfillments which come directly from the Creator Himself. These joys, pleasures and fulfillments are available though "soul attachments" by man, something which comprises the pinnacle of joy. Pleasures and thrills emanating from the creations who belong to the lower world order can give man only what their own world offers. At best, that which the lower world offers is illusory and swiftly passing.]

3 The Sefer HaYoshor calls this world, nivey ha'tlaohs, which means the "meadows or dwelling place of hardships." In our fantasies we hope this world will be "Happy-acres" or a place suited to a name like "Sunshine Meadows." Those wise men, who knew the world better, saw it as it really is.

4 He was one of the greatest reshoim of all times. As king, he dragged the Jewish people down into the mud of the most despicable wrongs.

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With an Eye on Eternity is published by
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© 1994 Rabbi Yehudah Lebovits

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