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Monday, 11 January 2016

Are you afraid of death?

Daf Yomi Gittin 28

For seventy years of Communist rule in Russia, the practice of religion was prohibited.  But that didn’t stop the leaders of our people.  The great Chasidic Rebbe, the Rayatz, at one point, was arrested and put in prison for teaching Torah.  In an effort to have him reveal the network of underground Torah teachers throughout the country, they inflicted all manner of terrible torture to his body. But he would not budge.  At one point, the interrogating officer became so frustrated that he pulled out his gun and waved it at the Rebbe. 
‘Do you know what this is?’ exasperatedly, he asked.
‘Yes, of course,’ replied the Rebbe, ‘it is a toy.  It is a toy that scares people who have one world and many gods.  But as for me, I have one G-d and many worlds.  It does not scare me.’ 

Mishnah: If an Israelite woman was married to a cohen and her husband travelled overseas, she may continue to eat terumah (priestly tithes) with the assumption that he is alive.
Abaye asked Rabbah: Consider the following contradictory Beraisa:
If a cohen said to his wife, ‘Here is your divorce which shall take effect one hour before I die,’ she is prohibited from terumah immediately (since he could die anytime).
Abaye answers:  There is indeed no problem.  The Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Meir who does not fear death.  The Beraisa follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who fears death.
Rashi explains: Rabbi Yehuda fears that the husband may indeed die imminently, whereas Rabbi Meir’s approach is not to be concerned for what might happen, as long as things are okay right now.

In Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Yaakov teaches, “This world is like a hallway.  Prepare yourself in the hallway in order to enter the palace [of the World to Come].”  When the Communist officer waved his gun at the Rayatz, he wasn’t afraid.  Our mission in this world is to prepare for the World to Come.  As long as he was doing the right thing, he was paving the way for his entry into the palace.  Like Rabbi Meir, the Rayatz did not fear death. 

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov continues, “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life in the World to Come!”  Wait a sec.  Isn’t that a contradiction?  He just told us that this world is merely a hallway, a corridor that we are passing through to gain entry into the next world.  Now, he’s saying it’s better here than there?!   What does he mean?

 The contrast between this world and the next is a stark dividing line between atheism and most religions.  For most of the world’s religions, it’s all about heavenly bliss in the next world.  This world may be dark, but that’s okay, because heaven is the place you want to be.  Not Judaism.   We believe that both this world and the next have intrinsic value.  If Hashem wanted us to be in heaven, He would never have bothered sending us down here to begin with.  He sent us here because He wants us to refine and perfect this world. 

And here’s the ultimate dichotomy between Judaism and other religions.  We believe that good people will eventually be rewarded not in heaven, but back in this world, with the Resurrection of the Dead in the Messianic era!  Why?  Because, after all, who exactly served G-d?  Your soul?  No, your soul couldn’t have done it alone.  It was your body and soul working in tandem that served Hashem.  That’s the meaning of Rabbi Yaakov’s second teaching: one moment of good deeds in this world is greater than anything you can achieve once you’ve passed on to heaven.  And that’s why Rabbi Yehuda fears death.  Once you’ve died, you can no longer grow in your service of Hashem.

What’s more, since we believe in the value of both this world and the next, Judaism teaches that we are rewarded in both worlds, even during our present lifetimes!  When our Patriarch Yitzchak chose to bless Esav, explains Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Safed 1508-1593), he was no fool. He knew exactly who Esav was and who Yaakov was.  But he figured that Yaakov would receive his reward in the World to Come, where the reward is so much greater.  Let Esav ‘own’ this world, whose reward doesn’t compare to the reward of heaven.

But our Matriarch Rivka disagreed, says the Alshich.  Judaism places value on both worlds and so Yaakov deserved to be blessed in both places.   If all the righteous were to suffer in this world, nobody would want to do the right thing; and we would consequently lose both worlds!  If we want people to stay in faith and commit themselves to righteousness, Hashem must reward them in this world too!  And indeed, Rivka’s reasoning won out and our Patriarch Yaakov was blessed both in this world and the next.  And that blessings continues to his offspring for all generations.  When you do good, you are rewarded in the here and now, as well as the World to Come! 

In Judaism we fear death and we don’t fear death.  Both are true.  As long as we can do good in this world, we want to be here.  Every mitzvah you do earns you a ticket to the good life in this world and the World to Come.  So stick around here as long as you can – you will receive blessings of health, nachas, and abundant parnassah (livelihood)!  May you merit unlimited blessing and reward in this physical world, the next spiritual world, and ultimately back here in this world when Moshiach comes!  

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