Wednesday, 7 April 2010

All Israel have a Portion in the World to Come - Action is the Main Thing

The time between Pesach and Shavuot is an opportune time to learn about those teachings that aid in refining our behaviour. It is specifically in the summer months that this learning takes place, since during this time the Yetzer (i.e. evil inclination) is at its height. Ready for anything during this time, the Yetzer will invent a variety of excuses to trap anyone seeking to come closer to G-d and to one's fellow man.

Our Sages therefore set up at this time, that we should study Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers, a tractate of the Mishna that deals with the basics that every Jew needs to learn about.  We can ask however, why at the beginning of each chapter, we are required to learn another Mishna from Sanhedrin (11:1) which states, "All of the Jewish people have a portion in the world to come as it says…" What does this have to do with chapters devoted to ethical behaviour, righteous conduct and general good manners?! Of what value is to know that every Jew has a portion in the world to come, when the focus of learning should clearly be on improving one's behaviour in this world?

There are two views expressed on the importance of learning these ethical chapters. Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura states that every person needs to work on themselves. It's just simple decency in the world that people behave in a way that brings peace to everyone around them. Even those who are not Jewish have their own set of basic life rules of how to behave (whether alone or in public.) Without basic rules, the world would become a wild zoo of animals doing whatever they liked. (Those wondering about the current state of affairs, may do well to consider that it may be that because everyone wishes to follow their own hearts instead of following common morality – that indeed the world has turned into a wild zoo in many places!)

Our Sages on the other hand tell us that the teachings of Pirkei Avot are really "Milei DeChasiduta" – words of piety. These words are here to make us better than just good. We should all be good – but how do we get to be *really* good? Follow Pirkei Avot!

So which is it, are they just words of good general behaviour or are they words to be studied by only the elite who are ready to truly turn themselves into angels?

In fact both of these apply to each of us. On the one hand, we must view these teachings as necessary. Nobody is exempt from learning proper ethical behaviour. On the other hand, let nobody think the words are just simple. Rather, one who immerses himself in these teachings – from the smallest to the greatest – stands the chance of becoming truly great. Even without in-depth Torah learning, those who follow the teachings of this tractate can learn the finest skills of becoming a giant of a person – one who is respected by others, and by himself too!

The Mishna points out to us that *every* single Jew as a portion in the World to Come. Our Sages teach us that this applies to the time of the resurrection of the dead when the souls will once again be placed into bodies and revived. This is the World to Come.

Before the soul enters this state, however, it travels through another world, commonly known as Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden.) What then is the difference between these two levels? We are taught that Gan Eden is the place where the soul receives reward for the Torah it has studied. However, when it comes to Torah study, we are all on different levels. In fact, there may well be some (G-d forbid) who never learn Torah at all. To such individuals, Gan Eden holds no value. Not necessarily because they don't deserve something – but perhaps because that is a world of the fullness of Torah. Much like the aged person of 100 years old knowing little of advanced mathematics might find himself quite bored and irritated in a day lecture of advanced mathematics, so too the soul that has not learned to appreciate the beauty of Torah and has not grown, may well feel quite agitated surrounded only by the Sages of Israel!

But what of good deeds?! Here, our sages teach us, that even the most simple Jew is filled with Mitzvot like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. Even the simplest Jew can fulfill the Mitzvot incumbent upon him. He can wear Tefillin every day without every understanding what he is doing. He can eat Kosher without understanding the importance of the food on his soul. He can observe and sanctify the Shabbat day – without ever having understood any aspect of the true holiness of the day or having immersed himself in years of learning these numerous laws!

One who can study – should certainly do so. One who can apply himself to learning, should certainly do so. It will be good for him in this world and the next. However, the person who finds himself unable to learn should not give up. Ultimately there is an even more wonderful place for the soul (after the revelation of Moshiach) when all the dead bodies will once again be brought to life. *Then* at that point in time, all souls will receive reward generously for the numerous Mitzvot they performed.

Pirkei Avot is not about intensive learning. The teachings are easy to understand with just over 100 main lessons that guide one through one's entire life and make one a decent human being (if nothing else) and an angel at best!

Nobody is exempt from improving their behaviour and doing the right things in life. Things that do good for the entire world, one's own family and oneself. The reward for doing is far greater than the reward for study – because in this world, the physical, material world, "Action is the main thing." We are physical beings involved in physical things – from eating and drinking, to wearing Tzitzit. From shaking a Lulav to blowing a Shofar. From giving charity to saying a kind word to another; there are literally millions of good deeds that await our attention every single day. There are millions of people that are in need of the good we can do for them.

So even if one cannot study 20 hours a day and gain a good share in Gan Eden, every Jew should know well, that come what may – the most crucial reason we study Torah – is so that we can be better people, help others, and bring goodness and kindness into the world.

Torah is greater than good deeds… only because it leads to good deeds. It leads to the soul – clothed inside a body – performing acts of goodness and kindness to others. Therefore it too will be well rewarded at that time when both soul and body re-unity. Pirkei Avot begins with the ultimate Mishna – "Every Jew has a portion in the world to come…" No Jew is exempt from the effort required in learning what it means to grow and bring goodness everywhere one goes. Knowing that means that one can begin learning these Mishnayot with a view to true spiritual growth.

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