Dreaming of Moshiach

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Illusions of Good & Bad

The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) teaches that in the World to Come everything will be turned upside down. Those who are on the bottom here will be on top there and vice versa. The point it makes is that very often our judgments about who is a saint and who is a sinner are far off the mark. The way the world offers honor is literally topsy-turvy. Only in the afterlife can we see who are the truly deserving.

The Baal Shem Tov, zs'l, the 18-century founder of the Hassidic movement, explained what that means through this wonderful story:

In a certain house, there dwelt two Jews and their families. One was a learned scholar, the other a poor laborer. Each day the scholar would rise from his sleep at the break of dawn and go to the synagogue where first he would study a page of Talmud. Then as the pious men of old were wont to do, he would wait a short time, direct his heart to heaven and say the morning prayers quietly and slowly, drawing out his worship until almost midday.

His neighbor, the poor laborer, also rose early and went to work -- backbreaking work that strained the body and soul at once -- until midday, there being no time to go to the synagogue to pray with the congregation at the proper hour.

When noon arrived, the scholar left the synagogue to return home, filled with the sense of self-satisfaction. He had busied himself with Torah and prayer and had scrupulously performed the will of his Creator. On his way from the synagogue, he would meet his neighbor, the poor laborer, hurrying to the house of worship, where he would recite the morning prayers in great haste, in anguish and regret for his tardiness. They would pass each other.

When the poor laborer passed his neighbor on the street, he would utter a mournful groan, upset that the other had already finished his study and prayer in leisure before he had even begun: "Oh my, here I am just going to Shul. He had already finished. I didn't do it right. Ay ay ay!" Meanwhile the lips of the scholar would curl mockingly, and in his heart he would think, Master of the World, see the difference between this creature and me. We both rise early in the morning. I rise for Torah and prayer, but he...

So the days, weeks, months and years passed. Each of the two men's lives were spent in a different fashion, one in the freedom of Torah and prayer, the other in the slavery of earning a livelihood. When from time to time their paths would cross, the scholar would smirk, and the laborer would groan.

As it must to all men, death came at last to the scholar and, shortly afterward, to his neighbor, the laborer. The scholar was called before the heavenly tribunal to give an accounting of his deeds. "What have you done with the days of your years?" the voice from on high called out.

"I am thankful," replied the scholar with a firm voice, in which could be detected more than a little pride, "all my days, I served my Creator, studying much Torah and praying with a pure heart."

"But," commented the heavenly accuser, "he always mocked his neighbor, the poor worker, when they would meet near the synagogue." The voice from on high was heard, "Bring the scales."

On one side, they put all the Torah he had learned and all the prayers he had prayed, while on the other side, they put the faint smirk that hovered over his lips each day when he met his neighbor. Behold, the weight of the smirk turned the scale to guilty.

After the case of the scholar had been completed, they brought before the heavenly tribunal the poor laborer. "What have you done with your life?" asked the voice from on high.

"All my life, I have had to work hard in order to provide for my wife and children. I did not have time to pray with the congregation at the proper time, nor did I have the leisure to study much Torah for there were hungry mouths to feed," answered the laborer in shame and grief.

"But," commented the heavenly advocate, "each day, when he met his neighbor, the scholar, there issued from the depth of his soul a groan. He felt that he had not fulfilled his duties to the Lord."

Again, the scales were brought and the weight of the groan of the poor worker turned the scale to innocent.

Maimonides, zs'l, in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance, 3:2). In his legal magnum opus he concludes that in God's eyes a person's good deeds and shortcomings are judged qualitatively, not quantitatively. One terrible sin may outweigh a lifetime of good deeds, or one special good deed may wipe out many sins. Only God truly knows what is in each person's heart as well as the real value of our actions.

What we perceive as "bad things" might, in fact, be the best things that could happen to them. I know a multimillionaire who lost his first job as a mail clerk. Unable to find employment, he was forced to start an enterprise of his own. He now says, "It is only because I got fired that I made it."

I know of one young man who as a student was so distraught over a breakup with a girl that he became suicidal. He clearly thought that this was the worst trauma of his young life. I spent a whole night with him, talking sense to him, comforting him.

Twenty years later, I ran into this young man again. "Remember me?" he grinned.

"Sure do. You owe me a night's sleep," I said.

"I came back to tell you the end of the story," he responded. And he shared with me what had happened to him since that time. His life had been filled with blessings. He had a beautiful wife and children and was very happy. Meanwhile, the girl he considered ending his life over had become an alcoholic, and by last count had been married and divorced three times.

So ultimately, with hindsight, he realized that because of his "tragic" breakup he turned out to be much better off. Of course when he was suicidal and I tried to tell him that everything would turn out for the best, he could not listen, much less understand why it was better this way.

The Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, the body of Jewish mysticism, comments that when God created the world He pronounced it tov me'od, "very good." But when we look at the world, when we study history, when we watch World News or CNN, we find it very hard to agree with this divine judgment.

The Zohar points out that God gives us a clue in the name he chooses for the first man -- Adam. In Hebrew, Adam is spelled using the same letters as the word me'od" -- mem, aleph, daled -- but in different sequence: aleph, daled, mem. Furthermore, the Zohar says, Adam is an acronym standing for the three milestones of human history. Aleph, as the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represents the very beginning of the story of mankind with Adam. Daled, for David, represents the high point of Jewish history. Mem stands for Moshiach (Messiah), who will bring the world to its longed-for state of fulfillment.

When we finally reach that stage of history alluded to by the mem, the days of Messiah, we will be able to look at everything that ever happened before throughout the course of all time, from the aleph of Adam through the daled of David, and together with God, we too will be able to proclaim that the world is not only good, but indeed very good - tov "me'od."

As Søren Kierkegaard so powerfully put it, "Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward."

See more articles by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
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והיה השם למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה השם אחד - ושמו אחד ישתבח שמו לעד לנצח נצחים בכל העולמות Blessed is His name for eternity in all worlds אין עוד מלבדו