In our society, and day and age, one rarely contemplates leaving this Earth; we are immersed in a sea of earthbound attractions. King Solomon remarked, “Also the world He has placed in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes) referring to immortality. God placed a feeling of immortality in our makeup, for otherwise, we would be morbid, and we would not live with enthusiasm as He wishes. Humans require a sense of permanence in order to strive towards goals and happiness. Furthermore, the here and now is all we ever knew, and we cannot fathom some other existence. So we become attached to this world: buying stocks, more than taking stock in ourselves. However, based on one other consideration, we should reverse our priorities: we die.
The Torah is not devoid of addressing the major part of our existence: the afterlife. But since one’s afterlife can only exist if he or she came to a true love of wisdom while alive, the Torah does not focus on the afterlife, for that would distract us from studying wisdom for its own sake, “Torah Lishmah”. Therefore, in this life, we must “minimize our work and maximize our learning” (Ethics) if we are to truly arrive at a deep understanding and love for wisdom, Torah…and primarily love for God. It follows that a true appreciation for the World to Come, can only be experienced by those of us who truly love wisdom, for the next, immaterial world is bereft of any physical attractions. So, we cannot remain ignorant of the afterlife, and matters concerning it, but we must not focus on it an end: we desire it as a pristine, continuation of our engagement in Torah. Maimonides explains (Laws of Repentance; 9:2) that all of Israel, their prophets and their wise men anticipated the Messianic era, for at that time, we will be greatly engaged in Torah study, thereby meriting the World to Come.
Our society blinds us with distortions and emotional lures, and can easily remove us from our ultimate existence. It is therefore crucial that we renew our focus on the greatest mitzvah of Torah study. Let us do so now, simultaneously addressing this topic.
We do not often find a Mishna (unit of Oral Law) addressing pure philosophy. Usually, a Mishna elaborates on specific requirements of Halachik practice: “How does one violate carrying on the Sabbath?” So we take a little more time reading a Mishna that offers philosophic counsel regarding the next world. The Mishna teaches us the following (Kiddushin, 39b): “[For] anyone who performs one mitzvah, good is performed for him, his life is prolonged, and he will inherit the World to Come”. The Talmud then asks how this can be, since another Mishna (Payah, 1:1) states, “These are the matters that man eats the fruits in this world, but the principle awaits him in the World to Come, and these are they: honoring parents, acts of kindness, hosting guests, generating peace among friends, and Torah study outweighs them all.” The Talmud suggests that “these” five are what earn man his portion in the World to Come…and not as the Mishna in Kiddushin states. So which is it?
The Talmud resolves the seeming contradiction: the Mishna in Kiddushin in fact means, that whoever does one mitzvah “more” than his sins, will retain his portion in the World to Come. Meaning, if a person performed 50 sins and 51 mitzvahs (performing a majority of mitzvahs) then, “good is performed for him, his life is prolonged, and he will inherit the World to Come”. The Mishna in Payah teaches a different lesson: if one has performed 50 sins and 50 mitzvahs, (lacking a majority of mitzvahs) but one of those mitzvahs is one of these 5 mentioned in Payah…again, he retains his portion in the World to Come. We learn from the two Mishnas that there are two means to retain our share in the World to Come: 1) performing a majority of mitzvahs, or, 2) having an equal amount of sins and mitzvahs, but within our mitzvahs, we performed one of these 5: an issue of quantity vs. quality. The bottom line is that God judges us based on our strongest leanings. This is fair.
The Mishna in Payah teaches that Torah study is the greatest mitzvah. We should learn Torah based on a love of wisdom, for this is the highest level, and what will lead us to an awe and love of the Creator. Maimonides teaches that our portion in the next world is proportionate to the “greatness of our actions, and the abundance of our wisdom” (ibid, 9:1). The Mishna and Maimonides are concerned that we do not forfeit our World to Come. Are we as concerned? Sometimes we require an incentive, or a wake-up call, and perhaps this Mishna – understanding man’s nature – is addressing the need for a stimulant. But we must not remain Torah-adherent out of fear, as this is not a fitting level as Maimonides also teaches. (ibid, 10:1)
We have only one life. We have promises from God that the more we engage in Torah study and perfection, the more He will ease our burdens, allowing us to devote more time to study.
He created you, myself, and all mankind for this primary reason. That is why of all creation, man alone possesses intelligence. He also created us in a way that Torah study becomes more enjoyable with time, and more amazing. Study may not be easy at first, but do not allow initial frustration to deter you. For it is not studying that is frustrating, but our redirecting of energies from usual, familiar areas that requires emotional adjustment. Study can only bring enjoyment, as God designed us to enjoy wisdom more than any other pursuit. It is foolish if we ignore a doctor who knows the body best. Similarly, it is foolish to ignore God who designed us.
And once we gauge our lives based on God’s Torah, are we concerned enough to teach others? Teaching too is a command, so we must educate others, be they observant, non-observant, or Gentile.
As we approach the halfway point in our count towards receiving the Torah on Shavuos, let us be cognizant of that which we anticipate: the Torah – a guide for life, and our primary involvement and enjoyment. Be careful to avoid sin, and do mitzvahs, as the Mishna taught, this will secure our World to Come.
Contemplate the fact that you are a created thing…that there is a Creator. Then contemplate that He gave us all His Torah. To enjoy the World to Come, which is bereft of physicality, one must enjoy only that which exists there: wisdom. So study, and you will eventually gravitate towards more interests, you will be enamored with answers, and the cycle will continue your entire life, as you near your next, final existence. As you grow older, you will be more involved in your studies…out of pure, genuine curiosity…like the excited, inquisitive children we used to be.
There is much to be discovered, so be enthused, and anticipate much. Begin your journey, while helping others.