“Some people earn their place in the World to Come in one moment,” says the Talmud. Even if a person is a sinner throughout his entire life, if he repents on his deathbed he will enter Heaven.
So why bother doing mitzvos if you can do whatever you like and repent at the last second, gaining entry into Heaven?
The Mishnah lists five historic tragedies that occurred on the 9th Av. One of these calamities was that the city of Jerusalem was ploughed asunder, thereby fulfilling the prophetic words of Micah, “Zion shall be ploughed asunder like a field.”
The Beraisa teaches: When the wicked Turnusrufus destroyed the Temple, Chief Rabbi Gamliel was condemned to death. A high Roman officer came and stood up in the study hall and called out, “The handsome one is wanted, the handsome one is wanted.” When Rabbi Gamliel heard this he hid himself.
The officer then went up secretly to him and said, “If I save you will you bring me into the World to Come?”
He replied, “Yes.”
He said to him, “Swear to me!” He swore to him. The officer then went up to the rooftop and threw himself down and died.
Now there was a tradition amongst the Romans that when the council enacted a decree and one of the councilors died, then that decree is annulled (since they assumed that it must have happened due to their bad decision). A Heavenly Voice then came forth declaring, “This high officer is destined to enter the World to Come.”
The traditional blessing to someone who is observing a yortzeit is “Der neshmo zol hoben an aliya” – your loved one’s soul should have a spiritual elevation. The meaning of the blessing is may the soul achieve an ever higher level of Heaven than it already occupies. While certain other religions believe that you’re going to either Heaven or Hell, our understanding of the World to Come is much more nuanced.
In Judaism, first of all, merits and sins do not cancel one another out. You attend Hell to be cleansed of your sins and then you transition into Heaven. Generally, the maximum ‘sentence’ of the former abode is twelve months, hence our period of reciting kaddish, give or take.
But then when you reach Heaven, it’s a pretty diverse place. It’s called the ‘World to Come’ because you get whatever comes as a consequence of your actions in this world. To that end, there are infinite possibilities. And so when your living relative recites kaddish for you, your soul continues to climb to higher levels of Heaven.
This poor fellow who jumped off the building to his death no doubt went to Heaven, but who knows what kind of Heaven he received? It all depends upon his actions up until that point. And so yes, you can earn a place in the World to Come in just a moment, but what kind of place?
The reason we do mitzvos in this world is not to earn a place in the World to Come; it’s to serve the Almighty. The World to Come is merely a consequence of your actions, but shouldn’t be your motivation. Unlike for the Roman officer or other religions, for us, it’s not a matter of all or nothing; it’s a matter of degree.
Your time on this earth is limited! Maximize every moment in the service of the Almighty, that’s why you’re here! Ultimately, He created you in order to bestow His goodness upon you. But the same way that He really gets nothing in return for our efforts, strive to serve Him without expectation! But rest assured that your personal World to Come is the direct result of everything you do in your lifetime in this world.