Olam Haba - A Taste of Eternal Pleasure, Part 1
Rebbetzin Weinberg often tells her students that when they see her in the World to Come(Olam Haba), they’ll thank her. To this, the girls usually reply, “But we thank you now, Rebbetzin!”
“When you get to Olam Haba,” she always responds, “you will really thank me because only then will you truly know what eternal pleasure is.”
What exactly is the Jewish view of eternity? Where is it and how do we get there? In this series of articles about Olam Haba, we are going to address these and the following questions:
· Why do we need to learn about Olam Haba?
· How do we relate to this world in connection to the next world?
· Why does our true reward remain for the World to Come?
· If Olam Haba is so important, why isn’t it mentioned in the Torah?
· Why is Shabbos compared to Olam Haba?
Let’s start by taking a look at how our sages describe Olam Haba and how we can prepare ourselves to get there.
What is Olam Haba?
Our sages say that it’s impossible to completely fathom the nature of Olam Haba. The fact that we are physical beings who know only physical pleasures does not enable us to comprehend the ultimate good that our souls—the spiritual part of us—will experience in the World to Come, a completely spiritual world.
When we think of pleasure or reward in this world, we might think of eating good food, wearing beautiful clothes or having a lot of money. But our Torah scholars(chachamim) knew that these physical things are empty and fleeting. They are only considered of great benefit to us in this world because we possess a physical form; the soul desires these things only because the body needs them. In a place where there is no body, all these matters become nullified.
The Rambam, in the Mishna Torah, explains that there is no way we can fully anticipate the good in Olam Haba because it is so overwhelmingly great that it cannot be compared to any good in this world. Furthermore, it is impossible for us to compare soul pleasures in the World to Come vs. the physical pleasures of this world. Spiritual pleasures are infinitely good, while physical pleasures are temporary.
David HaMelech, in Psalms (Tehillim), alludes to this concept when he writes, “How great is the good that You have hidden for those who fear You!”
Because the pleasure we will receive in the World to Come has no comparison here, even the prophets could not describe it over the course of Jewish history. Any description would have simply diminished it. Our sages(Chazal) tell us, “All the prophets only prophesized about the times of the Messiah(Mashiach). However, regarding Olam Haba, no eye has ever seen, except for You, Hashem.”
Entering the Banquet Hall
It would seem from our teachings that life is just a brief interlude between two eternities—the timeless span of existence before we were born, and the spiritual world that awaits us after we leave this world.
During our time on earth, we must eat, sleep and earn a livelihood. We experience joys and sorrows, fulfill commandments(mitzvot) and make mistakes. It sometimes appears that there is little to be gained from this world and so much to be suffered. To some, it would be easy to label our life on earth as something to be endured as best we can.
Just the opposite, the Mishna teaches. This physical interlude is most significant because during our 70 to 80 years of life we determine, by our actions, what fate will await us in the World to Come.
In Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avos), Perek 4, Mishna 21, it reads: “Rebbe Yaakov says: This world is like an anteroom before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall”
Let’s try to understand why the Mishna compares this world to a foyer or waiting room. A foyer opens to the various rooms of a house. One door may lead into a lavish dining hall, while another may lead to a dank basement. It’s not enough, say our sages, to exist in the waiting room. We must use our time wisely to prepare ourselves for when the foyer doors open and the time comes to move on. Our goal is to be admitted readily to the banquet hall—the grandest room of all.
Rebbe Yaakov continues: “Correct yourself in the anteroom so that (keday in Hebrew) you may enter”
If you add the letter aleph to the word keday (“so that”), it becomes kedai , which means “worthy.” By preparing ourselves through our actions in the foyer, we can become worthy of entering the banquet hall.
Let’s take a look at this concept from another angle. Imagine that you are scheduled to meet the President of the United States. You arrive at the White House, and a staff member leads you to a waiting room. Suddenly, the doors open and you are told that the President will see you now. Would you say, “Just a moment, please, I must adjust my make-up.” Of course, you would not dream of doing that. You’d be ready to be received
In the anteroom to Olam Haba, we await a much grander audience—with our Creator. Therefore, we must strive to be ready at all times in this life because none of us knows when we will be called.
The commentary Yen Levanon takes this idea further. Imagine a waiting room filled with three different groups of people, all waiting for a meeting with their king. The first group needs the king to render a judgment on a matter of law in which they are involved. They come prepared with a brief that outlines all the facts clearly and precisely. Once the group is brought before the king, it will not be able to add another point or change an argument.
The second group has been invited to a state dinner at the palace. They come dressed appropriately and immaculately. If they had put off their preparations until the last minute and were inappropriately attired when they were called, they would not be allowed to attend.
The third group is servants, on call to attend to the king. They are required to be fresh and alert, ready for immediate action as needed. At no time would they be allowed to say they were too tired to work.
Human beings belong to all three groups at once. Therefore, our preparation for Olam Haba must be on several levels. All of us eventually will stand before the King of all Kings to undergo Divine judgment. It will be a matter of law, involving the every essence of our being. We will have to face and answer for a lifetime of deeds, receiving reward for the good and punishment for the bad. And since we may be called at any time, we must work now, without delay, to prepare our own “brief”—the account of our lives—that must highlight our accomplishments and good deeds.
Here are some things we can work on now to put into our “brief”:
· If we do something wrong, we must correct it.
· If we are given an opportunity to do a mitzvah, we should take it.
· If we have a negative character trait(middah), we should start today to improve it.
Mitzvos and Misdeeds
On the subject of character traits (middos), Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Ecclesiastes (Koheles): “At all times let your garments be white.”
In this waiting room of life, we must try to ensure that our “clothing”—our personality and character traits—remains “white,” cleansed of the stain of sin and the dirt of meanness and foolishness.
The prophet Hoshea says further, “Sow for yourself righteousness, reap according to loving-kindness.” Amid the farmer imagery is borne a beautiful idea: In the ordinary course of our life, in our daily activities, we are all farmers. With every deed and action, we plant a minute seed in the soil of life. Therefore, we must plant seeds of righteousness and virtue. Here a kindness; there a quiet gift of charity.
Many philosophers have equated humanity to a barren wasteland of cold indifference, selfishness and hostility. Judaism tells us another story. Implicit in Hoshea’s words is the absolute certainty that this human world is as fertile as the finest farmland. It’s a chesed (kindness) of Hashem that our acts of righteousness in this world grow a splendid, immortal crop in which our souls will exalt. This is the sort "of “farming that makes us kedai - most worthy!
Not only is it in our best interest to prepare for Olam Haba while in this world, Hashem actually commanded us to do so when He told us to “Choose life!” With this commandment, Hashem is guiding us to choose a way of life in this world that will enable us “live” in the next world.
There is a famous story of a traveler who visits the Chofetz Chaim, one of the greatest rabbis of the last generation, which illustrates this point. The traveler is astonished by the Chofetz Chaim’s sparse accommodations. When he asks the Chofetz Chaim about the whereabouts of his furnishings, the Chofetz Chaim says, “Where are yours?”
The traveler responds, “I’m just passing through this town. And I’m not staying in any one place for an extended period of time, so any furniture would just get in my way.”
The Chofetz Chaim smiles and says, “Quite so. I too am a mere traveler in this world, expecting to be here only a short while. This world is just a passageway before the World to Come. For a passageway, this is quite adequately furnished.”
Let’s recap by listing the various ways we can prepare for Olam Haba:
1) Accumulate a brief—an account of our life—so that when Hashem calls for us we are prepared with a complete file that highlights our accomplishments. We can prepare this brief by acting upon opportunities to do mitzvos as they present themselves.
2) Follow the advice of Shlomo HaMelech, who counsels us to ensure that the “garments” of our true selves remain clean—free of immoral stains and sins.
3) Plant seeds of mitzvos and acts of kindness, as Hoshea advises.
4) Remember that Hashem commanded us to “Choose life!” We have an obligation to live in a way that will grant us life in Olam Haba.
5) Think often about the story of the Chofetz Chaim. The more we are attached to physicality, the more we are detached from spirituality. The more we are attached to this world, the less we are attached to the next world.
Michal Flisser is a recent alumna of EYAHT.