Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 6 March 2021 / 22 Adar 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 1)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The opening sentence of this section gives us an insight into one of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism: the relationship that exists between our physical actions and their spiritual reward. By teaching us, “These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact in the Word to Come,” our Sages are conveying to us an important message. Not only do our good actions accrue spiritual rewards, but they mostly do not directly benefit us in the physical realms. Not because they cannot, but simply because we do not want to squander their eternal worth in the World to Come on something as transient as a reward this world.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001), an exceptionally eloquent and brilliantly prolific Torah scholar who lectured all over the word, described this concept as the equivalent of buying a bottle of water using a ten thousand dollar check with no hope of receiving any change. A person desperately thirsty in the desert would likely be willing to part with such a huge sum of money. But that same person knows that in a different reality there would be no way they would spend even a fraction of that amount for a simple bottle of water. Under normal circumstances, the value of the check totally eclipses the worth of the water.

Likewise, the commandments we keep and the good deeds we perform in the physical world are priceless in the “currency” of the World to Come. They create our eternity. However, in order to be able to continue to exist and function in the physical world, there is a need, at times, to transfer some of the spiritual merits accrued in the spiritual spheres into our physical domain. This idea is similar to one having a savings account and a checking account. As a rule, money held as savings is not to be used for day-to-day needs. Over time it accumulates and can turn into a luxurious nest-egg, but there may be occasions when it is necessary to transfer from one’s savings account to the checking account to cover any shortfalls. Correspondingly, our Heavenly “bank account” is being topped up every time that we perform a mitzvah, but we are also drawing from our “savings account” into our “checking account” to fill any gaps that may have built-up as we live our lives in this world. Normally, such transfers come directly from the accumulated merits that we have amassed in the spiritual realms. However, the Talmud is teaching us here that there are certain mitzvahs that can garner us benefit in this world — yet not detract from our reward in the World to Come. Truly a win-win!

It is intriguing that these mitzvahs are not the ones that would necessarily spring to mind as being the ultimate source of reward both in both this world and in the World to Come. In general, the mitzvahs are loosely divided into two groups: those that reflect our relationship with G-d and those that determine the way that we interact with everyone around us. It would seem logical that the mitzvahs which would be those which are the source of such bountiful reward both in this world and in the World to Come would be ones that are clearly G-d-related. These mitzvahs appear to more clearly reflect the Divinity within us, by emphasizing our spiritual actions. Yet, it is quite the opposite. The mitzvahs listed here are not the ones that obviously define our connection with G-d, but are almost entirely related to our interpersonal relationships. This essential tenet is addressed by Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), one of the most erudite scholars in his generation and whose commentary on the Talmud is considered until today to be fundamental to understanding its depths. He writes (Tractate Peah 1:1) that G-d prefers mitzvahs that benefit other people even more than the mitzvahs that are between us and G-d.

As we shall learn together, even those mitzvahs which seem, at first glance, to only concern our relationship with G-d, are actually also focused on those around us and how we can help them and ourselves.

To be continued…

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