Olam Haba - A Taste of Eternal Pleasure, Part 2
In Part 2 of this article series on Olam Haba, we are going to explore how we relate to this world in connection to the next world. Essentially, if Olam Haba is the ultimate destination, why should we want to live here, in Olam Hazeh, so long?
Let’s start by taking another look at the Mishna mentioned in Part 1, where Rebbe Yaakov tells us that this world is only a foyer in which we prepare for Olam Haba. From this Mishna, we could easily assume that if life in this world is merely a waiting room and the World to Come is the great banquet hall, that life here on earth is of far less importance.
But the Mishna continues with Rebbe Yaakov contemplating and comparing our physical world to the spiritual Olam Haba. He says: “Better is one hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world than all of life in the World to Come, and better is one hour of spiritual pleasure in the World to Come than all of life in this world”
It’s true that in terms of spiritual bliss and eternal pleasure and reward, Olam Haba is incomparably superior. However, our physical world has one overriding importance of its own: Only here is man able to act, achieve, repent and change for the better—in essence, to develop and to grow spiritually.
Self-Awareness—Both Pleasure and Pain
The Torah teaches that life in this world is a journey, while the next world is the destination. If we view life as a journey to an unfathomably amazing place where we spend eternity, we will consider life’s difficulties meaningful. In fact, it is those very difficulties that build the results—the pleasure of growth and self-awareness.
Olam Haba, Jewish teachings explain, is a state in which a person experiences herself clearly. If we have “built” ourselves correctly, through a life of hard work lived to the fullest, the result is the ecstasy of being exactly what we should be and knowing that we are the cause of our own achievement. Nothing brings a person deeper happiness.
But the opposite is also true. The Torah concept of pain in the World to Come is the experience and knowledge that we could have achieved greatness and failed. If a person wastes the vast opportunities that life presents her, she will experience the pain of a self that could have been and was not.
While life’s experiences here are temporary, the results are eternal. The work of life may be challenging and sometimes painful, but it builds a result of pure, eternal happiness. The work of life draws inspiration from the knowledge that every moment of difficulty we overcome here will reap eternal rewards in Olam Haba, the pleasure of which is greater than all the moments of exertion of this life that built it!
There’s a story of the Vilna Gaon, a great Jewish sage of the 1700’s, which illustrates this point. In his last moments of life, the Vilna Gaon began to cry. His disciples, who were gathered at his bedside, did not understand his sorrow. They said to him, “Rebbe, you have spent a lifetime preparing for Olam Haba. Now that you are about to enter it, why do you cry?”
The Vilna Gaon pointed to the ritual fringes (tzitzis) that he always wore and said, “This garment I bought for so little money, yet by wearing it each day I was able to fulfill such precious mitzvot. In Olam Haba, even such a simple deed will not be possible. I cry because I will be deprived of any further chance to do mitzvot.”
While Olam Haba is the place of eternal pleasure, it is a passive realm. There is no more chance for initiative, for the ability to strive and to achieve.
The Midrash tells us that when wicked men stand in judgment before Hashem they will plead, “Please, Master of the Universe, permit us to repent and we will.” To this, Hashem will say, “You fools, the world in which you lived is like a Friday, and this realm is like Shabbos. If a person does not prepare food on Friday, what will he eat on Shabbos? Only one who has made his preparations before can eat now.”
We must remember everyday the greatness we can achieve here and the destination of eternal pleasure to which it can lead us.
Achievement vs. Reward
As stated above, while Olam Haba is the realm of incomparable bliss, this world is the domain of incomparable achievements. Whatever eternal joy Olam Haba may bring a person, there remains one deep satisfaction it cannot give—that of overcoming difficulties and making solid achievements. Experiencing spiritual growth—in belief and trust in Hashem (emunah), in Torah study and in acts of kindness (chesed)—brings its own joy and contentment.
Our sags (Chazal) tell us firmly that “there is no reward for a mitzvah in this world,” as the Torah says, “Then you shall keep the commandments and the statutes and the ordinances which I command you this day to do them.”
The Gemara explains that although the verse (pasuk) stipulates that we are to do them on this day,it mentions nothing about us receiving reward on this day. Rather it says, “You are to do them this day, but receive reward tomorrow”.
Why is this so? The Mishna in Peah answers, “Hashem has postponed the reward that the performers of the mitzvot receive, so that they should fulfill them in faith and trust.”
But this statement seems to contradict the countless references in the Torah that distinctly promise a reward of material goods and well being for people who observe Torah and mitzvot. For example, the Shema, which we recite twice daily, says, “If you will heed My commandments which I command you this day, to love Hashem your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, then I will give you:
· rain for your land in its proper season, so that you will have grain and wine and oil,
· and I will make grass grow in your fields for your cattle,
· and you will eat and be satisfied.”
Olam Haba is not mentioned directly here. In its literal meaning, the verse promises reward only in man’s everyday life.
So are we being rewarded in this world, or is Hashem saving the reward for all of our mitzvot for the World to Come?
The Rambam (Maimonides, a great Torah sage of the 12th century) explains that whenever the Torah promises material rewards, it does not mean full and true compensation. Rather, the material reward that Hashem showers on us in this world is only a means for us to work toward reaching further spiritual goals. The ultimate reward remains spiritual bliss in Olam Haba.
Why does the core of our true reward remain for the World to Come? Why is there no reward for a mitzvah in this world?
To answer this question, let’s imagine that we are employees who go to work everyday to earn money. Our employer writes us a check, and we go to the bank and cash it. Now imagine that we earn a check for our divine merits. Each time we do a mitzvah or an act of chesed, we go to the bank to cash in our check—yet there is no bank on earth with enough funds to honor the check!
Simply, there is not enough reward in this world for the true pleasure that a mitzvah deserves. The reward for mitzvot is so great that they can only paid for in “wealth” of the World to Come.
Michal Flisser is a recent alumna of EYAHT.