End of Days: True Reward & the True Religion
I wish to thank Jack, who wrote in with his question on whether Noachides were ever released from their commands. His question opened up many new ideas.
Talmud Avodah Zara (Idol Worship) commences with many interesting principles in connection with Noachide Law. It opens with an allegory authored by Rabbi Chaninah, including a metaphoric dialogue between God and the nations:
“In future (Messianic) times, God will bring the Torah and place it in His bosom and say, ‘Whomever has engaged in it, come and take his reward’. Immediately, idol worshippers will gather in a confused mass, as it states, ‘All nations will be gathered together’(Tal. Avoda Zara 2a).”
The Talmud continues with God asking each nation who approached with a claim of Torah involvement, to validate their claim. They each attempt to do so, but fail. The nations say they built bridges, constructed bathhouses and marketplaces, amassed wealth, and fought battles...ostensibly so that the Jews might benefit from these conveniences, thereby allowing for their greater Torah study. (Rashi, ibid 2b) However, God rejects their lies, accusing the nations that all these activities performed were purely out of self-interest and not for the Jews’ Torah study.
What is the meaning behind this metaphor of the future gathering of nations, and why in confusion, as the verse teaches? There are many lessons in this Talmudic section. As we proceed, we will quote more of the Talmud, suggesting our explanations throughout.
God Holds the Torah
Our first observation is that God holds nothing but the Torah in His bosom, as He announces to the nations to “take” their reward. This lesson is that reality offers no reward other than Torah itself. In other words, the true Torah student seeks nothing for his toil in his life of Torah investigation. The insights themselves are the Torah student’s only desire.
Therefore, we may first deduce that Torah itself is the reward, since God came only with the Torah in hand, and asks all who studied it to take their reward. When God offers the “reward”, and nothing other than the Torah is in His hand, He is teaching that in this reality in which we live, wisdom is the ultimate prize. This means that the activity of Torah study itself, when performed for its own sake, has no ulterior motive. A parallel is this: “there is no reward for a vacation”. The vacation is the ends sought after, as no one vacations with the idea that “if I enjoy a vacation, something else better will result”. Similarly, the Rabbis sought the next world for this very reason, that they would have a greater involvement in studying God’s wisdom. They did not imagine the Afterlife to be some new realm of physical pleasures, or something else. They engaged in Torah study, as they enjoyed it for the study itself. The marvels they uncovered were all they desired. They wished for no reward for their studies; rather, an Afterlife with an unlimited and uninterrupted state of apprehending God’s greater wisdom.
Again, why does God address the nations, asking, “Whomever engaged in Torah, let them come and receive their reward”? Why is this what God inquired about? This teaches that the ultimate activity on Earth is Torah study. For why should God ask about this activity alone, unless this was to be the primary focus? Furthermore, He asks this of “all” nations. We thereby learn that they are blamed that they abandoned study Torah. This is supported by Rabbi Yochanan’s statement that God offered the Torah to the other nations, but they rejected it.
Judaism’s Truth: Final Confession
Now, why do the nations seek to take credit for Torah at that time? They were not involved in Torah at all for countless generations! This metaphor indicates that they will have a new recognition of Torah’s supreme nature; a realization they never had prior. How this will come about, we do not yet know. But this might explain their confused clamor to obtain the reward: due to the undeniable new revelation that Torah is the only true religion, all nations must suddenly drop their religions, and shift their value systems, and this “confuses” them.
Furthermore, their lies to God that they toiled for Israel’s sake is startling: they feel they can lie to God! This exposes their corrupt view of God: i.e., He can be lied to. Their “dialogue” as forecasted in this Talmudic section exposes the humanistic view of God they had harbored; as if One with whom they can deceive with phony arguments. So although they recognize Judaism as true and their religions as false, and they will reject the religions passed down to them, they will still harbor false ideas. Maimonides teaches, “And when the true Messiah stands, and he is successful and is raised and exalted, immediately they all will retract and will know that fallacy they inherited from their fathers, and that their prophets and fathers caused them to err.” (Laws of Kings, Laws 11:10-12 Capach Edition)
Not Our Fault
The nations leave God’s presence shamefaced that their lies about supporting Torah were unmasked. They can no longer lie, now forced to accept that they were uninvolved in Torah. But they now take the angle that they had good cause. This metaphoric dialogue ensues as the nations address God: “Did you ever give us the Torah, that we didn’t accept it?” God says, “Yes”, and the Talmud derives this truth from verses. Realizing their error, the nations revamp their claim: “Did we ever accept Torah, and fail to observe it?” God asks them why they didn’t accept it. They again see His point. A third time, the nations address God with another revamping of their position: “Did you ever coerce our acceptance of Torah [like Israel was coerced at Sinai] that was followed by our failure to observe Torah?” God reminds them the initial generation after the Flood - that of Noah - had accepted the seven Noachide laws, but then later generations failed to uphold these laws. This is the exact wording from the Talmud:
“R. Joseph said: ‘He [God] stood and measured the earth; he beheld’ etc. What did He behold? He beheld the seven commandments which had been accepted by all the descendants of Noah, and since [there were clans that] rejected them He rose up and granted them exemption. Does this mean that they benefited [by breaking the law]? And if so, will it not be a case of a sinner profiting [by the transgression he committed]? - Mar the son of Rabana thereupon said: it only means that even were they to keep the seven commandments [which had first been accepted but subsequently rejected by them] they would receive no reward.’ Would they not? But it has been taught: ‘R. Meir used to say, Whence can we learn that even where a gentile occupies himself with the study of the Torah he equals [in status] the High Priest? We find it stated: ... which if a man do he shall live in them; it does not say ‘priests, Levites and Israelites”, but “a man”, which shows that even if a gentile occupies himself with the study of the Torah he equals [in status] the High Priest.’ - I mean [in saying that they would receive no reward] that they will receive reward not like those who having been enjoined perform commandments, but like those who not having been enjoined perform good deeds: Hanina has stated: Greater is the reward of those who having been enjoined to do good deeds than of those who not having been enjoined [but merely out of free will] do good deeds.”
No More Noachide Laws?
God reminds them that Noach did accept the Noachide Laws, but later generations failed to uphold them. At this point, the Talmud makes a startling statement: “He rose up and granted them exemption.” God then released the nations from their Noachide laws. This seems on the surface to suggest that Noachides no longer have these seven Noachide laws. However, as we read the following statement of Mar in the Talmud, we see this is not the correct understanding:
“Mar the son of Rabana thereupon said: it only means that even were they to keep the seven commandments [which had first been accepted but subsequently rejected by them] they would receive no reward.”
Mar explains that the exemption mentioned here is not regarding the ‘obligation’ of Noachide law. Rather, the Noachide is now exempt from the 'reward', so that he is not as great as one commanded. Meaning, Noachides had the chance to accept their laws, and since they ultimately rejected this system, they forfeited a higher level of reward by doing so. Now that they are as if not commanded, their reward cannot be as great. But how do we understand this idea that due to the Noachides’ rejection of their laws, they are now “as if” not commanded? The fact is that they ARE commanded. This can be explained as follows…
Even if a Noachide learns today, he does not do so due to God’s original commands to Noach, but due to his own sense of righteousness. Therefore, he is not following “God’s” transmitted laws which commenced with Noach and reached him. There was a break on transmission. Therefore, he is following his own mind. Hence, his reward is severely reduced. “Reward”, or rather, one’s perfection, is based on “following God.” Therefore, as Noachides subsequently rejected the observance of the Noachide laws, whomever decides today to observe is doing so not from a receipt of those laws directly back to Noach. The breach in Noachide observance has effects: observance of the Noachide laws today is not due to “following God”, but something decided by gentile societies seeking harmony. God is not part of their considerations. Thereby, following such “commands” has been mitigated in importance. “Compliance with God’s command” is the ultimate form of observing any of God’s law, be it Noachide or Israelite law.
The one exception (taught by Ramban, Ritvah: Tal. Makkos 9a) is that if a Noachide accepts to follow his laws in front of a bet din – a Jewish court – then his adherence is back on par with Noach himself. He is not considered as one “not commanded”, with respect to his reward. This makes sense, since this specific Noachide desires to follow the Torah format of Noachide law, transmitted in an unbroken chain by the Jewish nation. With his acceptance in a Jewish court, this Noachide reunites with the unbroken Noachide laws, and observes them as Noach did, as truly “commanded”. This Noachide views his commands as divine emanations, and not as practical system of government. So this Noachide is not considered to be performing the Noachide laws secularly, but divinely. His reward is complete.
To be clear, the Noachide was never permitted to break his laws. What the Talmud means as Mar teaches, is that since the Noachides rejected their laws, any subsequent adherence is not to follow God, but for practicality: to simply create a harmonious society. And since this Noachide would not be seeking God in his adherence to these commands, he clearly forfeits most of his reward. Reward is proportionate to the level of attachment to God. But when a Noachide accepts his laws in a Jewish court, he has reunited with God.
It should be noted here, that Talmud Sanhedrin 59a clearly teaches that as God repeated the original Noachide laws in the Torah, the Noachide is fully obligated in his laws along with the Jew. This Talmudic statement is dated long after God's “release” of the Noachide. Yet, the Rabbis of the Talmud do not suggest the Noachide is exempt today. This proves Mar’s explanation that God’s “release” of the Noachide is in regards to his reward only, not his seven Noachide obligations.
If I Can’t Have it, No One Can
As the Talmud continues, these nations try yet another angle: if “they” cannot obtain God’s offered reward, they don’t want the Jew to have it either. They claim that the Jews as well abandoned Torah, as they abandoned their seven Noachide laws. What does this sentiment reveal about the nations? Again we see that their motives are not pure. They live in the world of competition and ego, and do not seek truth and morality. Had they adhered to real virtues, their loss of reward would not be met with a competitive desire that the Jew suffers the same loss they do. But God proves to them – from their own gentile members – that the Jew did not abandon Torah.
Finally, God offers the nations one last chance at fulfilling Torah, by granting them the mitzvah of Succah. They attempt to fulfill this quite easy and inexpensive command, but when God causes the sun to wax hot over their heads, they leave the Succah – which is permissible to leave from when too hot outdoors – but they then kick the Succah as they leave. Why do they kick it? This displays that the gentiles have no understanding of the mitzvah's benefit, and simply view it as what caused their discomfort.
This entire dialogue is metaphoric, an allegory authored by Rabbi Chaninah. He teaches that in the end of times, God (reality) will expose which religion is correct. The “dialogue” refers to the realizations all nations will arrive at. They will realize that they have no reward in Torah, (what God offers) since they really abandoned Torah. All their pursuits were for themselves, and their ends – suggesting all they built can now be used for the Jews - will not justify the means. They will also realize that they have no defense for their abandon of the Noachide laws...as if God told them so in a dialogue. In this metaphor, absolute truths are represented as God. In those future times, the nations will still harbor resentment towards the Jew, expressed by their final sentiment that the Jew too abandoned Torah, which they realize is another false claim.
Their final attempt will be to try and quickly earn Torah reward by taking the easy way out, and performing the simple mitzvah of dwelling in a Succah. Again, God does not literally talk to them as the metaphor suggests. God's “talking” refers to their realization that Torah is true, as if God told them so.
The nations try to observe Succah, so as to reap reward. But even at this will they fail, expressed by their kicking of the Succah. And why do they kick it? Since they have not changed their outlook, they remain ignorant of what a mitzvah is. They feel mitzvah must offer physical pleasure. But when the sun beats down on them, and they lose pleasure, they abandon Succah. But the Jew knows that a mitzvah has a higher goal of imbuing man with the underlying idea of each particular mitzvah. Though the Jew may also leave Succah when discomfort sets in, he doesn't kick the Succah, since the Succah is not the objective of that command: accepting God as our true shelter is. So we don't look at Succah – or any physical object or performance – as a mitzvah's final objective. We seek out the deep ideas. But the gentiles do look at mitzvah as a physical matter and nothing more; all based on this underlying message that even at the end of days when God reveals the truth of Torah, the gentiles will not have had any time to truly appreciate what it is. It will take time, if they choose it.
Judaism will be shown as the only divinely given religion. God will inform the world that the real reward is Torah itself, for that is all He holds in hand when He tells the world to come and take their reward.
There is nothing more desirable than God's wisdom: (Proverbs 8:11) "For better is wisdom than pearls, and all desirous things do not compare to it."
The nations will recognize Judaism, and will desire the reward for Torah. However, they haven't changed themselves internally, even with their recognition that Judaism alone is true. Man cannot suddenly transform his inner world. Yes, the nations must agree with what they see as true, but this does not change their emotional makeup. That takes time. They still harbor false ideas about God, about His Torah, and they still have anti-Semitism. Eventually, “all sons of flesh will call His name.” But apparently, not right away. Fortunate are we that we have the Torah.
What we must do now, is reflect on whether each one of us truly values wisdom and yearns to return to Torah study...so deeply, that we start “minimizing our work, and maximizing our Torah (Ethics).” Is wisdom something we truly value over all else, as King Solomon taught in Proverbs? God is telling us that in the end, the real reward awaiting us is greater wisdom. But we will not appreciate that reward, if we do not make the efforts now to abandon what the world values, like entertainments, wealth, lusts and fame, and instead, sample the unparalleled marvels that God’s wisdom offers mankind, as the wisest men have discovered. Without expending effort, we cannot simply enjoy the true reward later on. Just as the gentiles in the future will not be able to enjoy Torah’s reward, we will not be able to do so either, unless we train ourselves in its study. Though the first steps are difficult, the enjoyment will come.
So don't waste your life, you yet have time to immerse yourself in regular Talmudic study; finally discover what true enjoyment is – what God intends for you.
It’s your choice, who will you follow: popular opinion, or those like King Solomon?