Ethics Now & Then 70 – Avot 4:22

 

Avot 4:22 He used to say: Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in This World than the entire World to Come; and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World. 

Star of David ENT

He [Rabbi Ya’akov] used to say: 

This verse is a continuation of 4:21, in that Rabbi Ya’akov (Jacob) pursues a comparison of our life here on earth (Olam HaZeh) with life in the eternal World-to-Come (Olam HaBa). Previously, he compared life here to a waiting room where one ensures one is prepared to enter the banqueting hall of the king. In this verse, Rabbi Ya’akov assures that this concept does not devalue life here and we should not consider it less important than the eternal life that awaits us.

Better one hour of repentance [teshuvah – turning to God] and good deeds in This World than the entire life of the World to Come…

 Although the Word of God tells us there is life hereafter, we have no concrete idea of what life will be like in the World to Come. As Paul describes in 1 Cor.2:8, in reference to Isaiah 64:4, “…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” With the information we are given, however, we can anticipate and imagine the glory of such a life – one lived fully in the light and the beauty of His Presence. And yet, Rabbi Ya’akov says that only one hour of true repentance, returning one’s heart fully to God, and the doing of good deeds (mitzvoth) here on earth is better than the entire life there! How is this possible?

There is a story of one of the most respected Rabbis of Eastern Europe, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), who is known as the gaon (genius) and tzaddik (saint) of Vilna, or Vilnius, the Lithuanian city where he was born and where he became a brilliant scholar and outstanding spiritual leader. When the Hassidic movement started and became influential in his native town, the Vilna Gaon joined the “opposers” or Mitnagdim, rabbis and heads of the Polish communities, to curb the Hasidic influence, which focussed on joyful praise and service to God. He, rather, promoted an intellectual, scholarly approach to gaining knowledge of God and encouraged his students to study secular sciences, and even translated geometry books to Yiddish and Hebrew.* Later Jewish leaders understood that a balance of both spritual and scientific knowledge is most desirable.

As the Vilna Gaon approached his final moments before death, it is recorded by his disciples that, in an uncommon display of emotion, he began to weep. In surprise and concern they asked him how one like himself, who had spent his lifetime in honoring God and preparing for the Hereafter now, on the threshold, had reason to be weeping. He pointed to the tzitzit (fringes) of his tallit* that he constantly wore and said, “By wearing these each day, I was able to fulfill such precious mitzvoth (good deeds one can perform in obedience to God). I weep because in the world-to-come I will be deprived of any further chance for mitzvoth.” ** Although he had achieved much, was he perhaps repenting of his focus on intellectual study over the doing of deeds of lovingkindness towards his fellow man?

The Midrash also enforces this concept by saying that on the day of Judgment there will be no opprtunity to repent and to do good deeds, for this world is like a Friday and the next world like a Shabbat. If one does not prepare food on Friday, what will one eat on Shabbat, when – as was illustrated with the manna in the wilderness – the work of collection and preparation of food is forbidden? This world also is compared with the seashore and the next world to the sea. If the crew does not stock up with food before setting sail, what will they eat once at sea?***  We see this concept vividly described by Yeshua in his parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25) who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom at night. Five were prepared with extra oil, not knowing the exact hour he would arrive, but five were not and, as a result, were excluded from the wedding banquet.

With all its promised wonder and bliss, one thing the World-to-Come cannot give is the deep satisfaction we can experience here of wrestling with the challenges, temptations and difficulties of this life and overcoming them with the guidance and enabling of our faithful God and Father. With His help, in Yeshua our Messiah, and by His Spirit of holiness, we gain the satisfaction of spiritual growth and understanding through both the study of His Word and in our obedience expressed in deeds of loving-kindness. We can enjoy contentment in so doing, here and now in simple faith and trust, even when we see no material gain in this world for we know that any reward wlll be be stored up for us in the life to come.

…and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World.

We indeed have no clear concept of the joy we will experience with the absence of evil and of life in the full glory and beauty of the Presence of God. While we are able to enjoy the fruits of goodness when the ways of God are followed in this life, we also continue to face the ravages of evil, as King David well knew when he wrote the Psalms: “The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (119:110-112).

Again, as Paul taught, who was content whether with much or with little, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy:17-19).

Star of David ENT

Pause and Reflect

To this generation, for those who have ears to hear, it is not news that Jesus was a Jew in every way and that he grew up in a Jewish world that was flourishing within the framework of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Written Law or Torah) as well as the Oral Torah transmitted by the Sages. We see in the gospels that Jesus was scrupulous in keeping the Jewish commandments. Renowned scholar David Flusser (z”l) notes in his book, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, that: “Jesus regarded the Torah, with all its jots and tittles. as a world complete in itself [one prescribed by his Father in Heaven] on which the existence of the material world depended” (Matthew 5:17-20).

He was fully conversant and in accord with the Sages. Flusser points out that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches according to the more stringent moral views of, for example, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Shammai; whereas in the more ritual and institutional matters, and those directly involving others, he was more lenient according to the sage Hillel. He therefore bridged the strictness of the school of Shammai in more personal moral matters regarding sin and the school of Hillel’s love of one’s fellow man.

From the second Century onward the officially established state religion of Christianity forbade Jewish believers, or those drawn toward the values of Judaism, to keep the commandments of Torah and persecuted them as heretics. We are challenged today to consider the stance of Jesus himself and how three times in the gospels he proclaims, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 8:21). “”Blessed…are those who shemah / hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28) and “Whoever does the will of God [his Father] is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).  In the light of the Church’s new understanding of the Jewish Roots and Hebraic sources of the faith, what changes in attitude toward the Torah or Law of God should be evident? What would Jesus do?

Footnotes:

*See Vilna Gaon, Wikipedia.

* The purpose for the tzitzit on the corners of a tallit katan (worn as a vest under one’s outer garment) and on a large outer tallit or prayer shawl  is to remind one of the commandments of God. The cords and knots in their design add up to a total of 613 – the number of mitzvoth in the Hebrew Scriptures.

** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 152

*** Midrash Mishle, vi; Rabbah, Eccl. i:15

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