“Rabbi Yaakov says: ‘This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.’
He was accustomed to say: ‘Better one hour of teshuvah (spiritual return) and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come; and better is one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.’ ” (Mishnah, Pirkei Avos 4:21,22)
In this letter, we will discuss the above paradoxical statement, but we first need to define the term “World to Come.” A classical commentator on the Mishnah, known as the Tosfos Yom Tov, cites the view of Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel that the term “World to Come” mentioned above can be explained in the following two ways:
1. “World of the Souls” – This is the blissful sphere that the soul enters after it leaves the body.
2. “World of the Resurrection” – This is the blissful golden age of human history on the renewed earth, following the resurrection of the dead, when the soul will be reunited with the body.
The World to Come therefore has two stages: After the soul departs from the body in this world, it enters the World of the Souls where it awaits the era when it will enter the World of the Resurrection.
According to our tradition, the ultimate goal of the World to Come is not the blissful life in the otherworldly sphere of the souls; the ultimate goal of the World to Come is the blissful and eternal life on this earth. This will take place during the final stage of human history when the earth will be renewed and our souls will be reunited with our bodies.
In the Mishnah cited in our introduction, Rabbi Yaakov reminds us that in order to attain the World to Come, we must first prepare ourselves during our present life on earth. And he adds the following paradoxical statement:
“Better one hour of teshuvah (spiritual return) and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come; and better is one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.”
How are we to understand this paradoxical statement? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this Mishnah, offers the following response which is in the spirit of the other commentators:
Each of these two worlds has its own purpose and thus a value peculiarly its own which the other cannot afford us. This world is the place where you may prepare yourself by self-ennoblement through the discharge of your physical, moral, and spiritual tasks. You cannot make up in the world to come for any of the moral and spiritual refinement that you have not attained in this world; thus, even one hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is more important for the improvement of your soul than all the life of the World to Come. What you fail to do in one hour of life’s task in this world, you cannot retrieve even in all the eternity of the World to Come. On the other hand, the World to Come is one of blissful happiness, and all the joys and pleasures which even the longest lifetime on earth could afford, cannot outweigh even one hour of spiritual satisfaction which is found in the World to Come.
Regarding the importance of this world, King Solomon writes “For he who is attached to all the living has hope, a live dog being better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). The classical commentator, Rashi, explain that when a person is alive in this world, he can still engage in teshuvah; thus, no matter how low he has fallen, there is still hope for change and renewal. Rabbi Irving Bunim, a noted Torah educator of the previous generation, offers the following, related insight:
“This world of ours is the domain of incomparable achievement. Whatever ethereal joy the Hereafter may bring a person, there is one deep satisfaction it cannot give: the satisfaction of overcoming difficulties and making solid achievements. To see oneself grow spiritually - in faith, in religious observance, in Torah study, in deeds of kindness - this brings its own basic joy and contentment.” (Ethics from Sinai - Rabbi Bunim's anthology of commentaries on Pirkei Avos – Original Edition)
Rabbi Bunim illustrates the above idea with the following story about the Vilna Gaon, a leading 18th century sage:
In the last moments before he left this world, the Vilna Gaon began to weep. His disciples, gathered by his bedside, could not understand. “O Master,” they asked, “you have spent a lifetime preparing for the Hereafter. Now that you are about to enter it, why do you weep?” In reply, he pointed to the tzitith – the fringes of the four-cornered garment that Jewish men wear (see Numbers 15:37). And he said, “This garment I bought for such a little bit of money. Yet by wearing it every day, I was able to fulfill such precious mitzvos. In the World to Come, even so simple a deed will not be possible. I weep, for in the World to Come, I will be deprived of any further opportunities for doing mitzvos!”
And now for the other side of the paradox: The greatest bliss awaiting those who strive to do mitzvos will be in the era after the resurrection, when the body and soul are reunited. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato was a noted 18th century sage and kabbalist, and in his classical work Derech Hashem, he writes: “The true time and place of reward will therefore be after the resurrection in this renewed world” (1:3). To give us a deeper understanding of the happiness that will be experienced when the body and soul are reunited, I will share with you the following summary of some teachings from “The Juggler and the King” by Rabbi Aharon Feldman – an English rendition of the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on the Aggados (Stories and Parables) of the Talmud:
The joining of body and spirit is one of the inexplicable miracles of Creation. When we praise the Creator in the daily blessing as, Mafliah la'asos - The One Who does wonders, it is an appreciation of His binding the physical with the spiritual and causing them to operate in unison. (Commentary of the Rema on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 6:1).
The partnership of body and soul is also the human being’s greatest source of satisfaction, for nothing is more satisfying than having one’s inner and outer being working in tandem. The fact that only the partnership between body and soul can create the full human experience is the reason why the Creator gave the human being mitzvos to perform in this physical world. Through mitzvos, the spiritual light and wisdom of the soul can be expressed by the life-force of the body.
Even the reward of the World-to Come is not complete until the whole human being – body with the soul – experiences it. Although there is reward awaiting the human being after death, the full reward – the direct and unalloyed experience of the Divine revelation – is not destined to come until after the Resurrection, when soul and reconstructed body are rejoined. Only then can the revelation be experienced in full reality, a reality that for the human being inevitably includes a physical setting.
The Talmud states that Shabbos is a semblance of the World to Come (Brochos 57b). On Shabbos, we can get a “taste” of the sweet bliss awaiting us in the future. In this spirit, many sing the following words during the Shabbos evening meal:
“God – I long for the sweetness of Shabbos!” (Kah Echsof)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Regarding the dead, it is written, “there is no more reward for them” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), for they themselves no longer have opportunities to earn reward in the World to Come. Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, cites the following parable of our sages: “One who prepares on the eve of Shabbos will eat on Shabbos.” Just as the preparations that we do before Shabbos enable us to eat on Shabbos, so too our spiritual preparations in this world enable us to enjoy the spiritual delights of the World to Come.”
2. The Mesilas Yesharim – The Path of the Upright – is a classical work on the path of the soul written by Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. In the opening chapter, he writes:
“Our sages of blessed memory have taught us that the human being was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in Hashem and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Shechinah (Divine Presence); for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said, ‘This world is like a lobby before the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avos 4:21).”
An English translation of Mesilas Yesharim is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com . The translator is Shraga Silverstein.
3. “Ethics from Sinai” by Rabbi Irving Bunim and “The Juggle and the King” by Rabbi Aharon Feldman are published by Feldheim.