Law 5 (end — see two weeks ago for entire text)
Nevertheless, we are commanded to follow the middle path in life. This is the best and most upright way, as the verse states, ‘You shall follow in His ways’ (Deut., 28:9).
The following is how [the Sages] understood the explanation of this commandment (i.e., the above verse — ‘You shall follow in His ways’): Just as He is considered gracious, so too should you be gracious. Just as He is merciful, so too should you be merciful. Just as He is holy, so too should you be holy.
Along these lines did the Prophets refer to G-d with such titles — ‘slow to anger,’ ‘great in kindness,’ ‘righteous’, ‘upright’, ‘pure’, ‘mighty’, ‘powerful’ and the like. These convey to us that these are proper paths, and one must accustom himself in such behavior and [by so doing] resemble his Creator to the extent he is able.
Last week we began discussing the Rambam’s abrupt change of direction. Up until now he had been discussing the beauty of following the middle path in life — how it is the healthiest, most balanced approach to life. Here, however, he states that it is in fact much more than that: It is the way of G-d. Our mission in life is not simply to improve ourselves. It is to resemble our Creator. Character development is not merely a personal means toward self-improvement; it is the first step toward knowing G-d.
To understand this more fully, we introduced the concept of the World to Come. As little as we know about it, the Talmud makes it clear to us that it is not some self-contained pleasure. For our ultimate reward G-d does not grant us anything limited or finite. He grants us the ultimate reward — Himself (as R. Aryeh Kaplan so eloquently expresses it). We will be granted a relationship with our G-d. The Talmud describes a world in which the righteous will be sitting “with crowns on their heads” enjoying “the shine of the Divine Presence” (Brachos 17a). As Jewish philosophers explain, this is all quite metaphorical — since of course there is no way we could even comprehend the bliss this implies. Yet it is clear that we will be experiencing some intimate, ecstatic closeness with our Creator.
(A rabbi once commented that our understanding of the World to Come would basically compare to how one would describe it to a frog. Imagine a beautiful pond, gentle breeze, lots of lily pads, dead flies lying all over the place. What could be more blissful? That about describes how well we can understand such heavenly matters. And sadly, some religions have been superficial enough to lower their image of the World to Come to something man can understand. Let’s just say anything we can relate to today cannot possibly be all that good.)
Now, let us ask ourselves a difficult question: Do we really want to be so close to G-d?
First of all, let’s keep in mind, this is inevitable. Pardon my saying it, but we can choose to ignore this reality for our 80 or 90 years down here, but we’ll all be going down that path sooner or later. Man has not invented any way around it — even if we can delay the inevitable ever so slightly. So again, what kind of experience will this be for us? How will we fare? And strange as it may sound, if this is G-d’s special reward for us, are we sure we even want it?
The answer is that it really depends what we’ve made ourselves during our lifetimes. To the extent we have lived as spiritual people — favoring goodness and sanctity over evil and vulgarity — we will ready ourselves for an encounter with our Creator. Closeness to G-d, as the Talmud describes the World to Come, implies we will have a relationship with our G-d.
Now in this world how does one develop a relationship with another? By sharing values, having common interests and experiences, and spending quality time. And with G-d it is not so different. By studying Torah and observing His commandments, we develop ourselves into godlike individuals. We understand and begin to appreciate G-d’s values, as set forth in the Torah. We develop common interests with Him, so to speak. And by so doing, we condition ourselves for a relationship with G-d. If we have done so during our lifetimes, the closeness to G-d of the World to Come will be indescribable bliss. We spent our lives preparing for such an encounter, and coming face to face with our Master will be the ultimate pleasure.
If, however, we lived for little more than our careers, pleasures, ball team, social standing, etc., we will be utterly distant and removed from godliness. When we eventually die and stand before our Creator, we will no longer have the diversions and distractions which occupied our minds during our lifetimes — leaving us blissfully ignorant of the inevitable. We will stand, stripped of our bodies, before our G-d. We will be exposed and alone — with the excruciating knowledge that we have squandered our lives — that one opportunity G-d granted us to make something of ourselves, failing in the entire purpose G-d brought us down to this earth. We will be exposed with all our faults before our Creator, and there will be nowhere to hide. And it will be a living Hell.
(There is actually an opinion in the Talmud that this is precisely the punishment of Hell. It is not a separate place in which we will roast over open fires as atonement for our sins (though that is certainly the simple reading of the many Midrashic statements regarding it). It is the same closeness to G-d which for the worthy will be a living Paradise — and for the unworthy will be a living Hell. Our burning sense of shame will be no less intense than the proverbial burning fires of Hell. Or to state it differently, what to us today is psychological and emotional pain — knowing we’ve failed — will ultimately — in the spiritual world, in which all that will remain will be our awareness — will be transformed into real and excruciating pain. For a fascinating treatment of this, see R. Aryeh Kaplan’s essay, “Immortality and the Soul,” available as part of The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology by Artscroll Mesorah Publications (also here). See alternatively our past treatment of this in Pirkei Avos 3:1.)
The above provides us with yet another important life lesson. Say one performs every Jewish law and custom to the letter, but with basically zero feeling and appreciation. Has he truly sanctified himself? Has he conditioned himself for closeness to G-d? R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (of early 18th Century Italy — considered one of Judaism’s all-time great philosophers), in his treatise “Ma’amar Ha’Ikkarim” writes that part of G-d’s judgment of us includes where He should reward and punish us. There are good deeds which may earn us reward in this world alone and not in the next. If we gave charity for small and selfish reasons — say for honor before our fellows or just because we were embarrassed not to, will it earn us a relationship with G-d in the next world? Or will G-d more appropriately pay us off down here — the only world we seemed to care about? And sadly, the same is true of many of the petty, superficial reasons which drive us to fulfill the mitzvos (commandments), be them peer pressure, social considerations, nostalgia, or sheer blind habit. A lifetime of empty acts may be worth far less than one moment of true inspiration.
(It should be mentioned at the same time that not every mitzvah is readily meaningful to us. A significant minority of the commandments, known as the “chukim”, do not have reasons readily understandable to man. Such mitzvos sanctify us as well — in ways our souls more than our intellects can appreciate — and too ready us for that ultimate relationship with G-d. They additionally demonstrate our devotion to a G-d in our observing even that which we don’t understand. More generally, in spite of the great significance of understanding the mitzvos, we are obligated to observe G-d’s commandments whether or not we’ve mastered the reasons behind them. The fulfillment of the words of an infinite G-d can in no way be dependent upon the understanding of finite and puny man.)
This, to conclude, is the great message of the Rambam this week. Character development must never be practiced just for the sake of our own personal health or emotional well-being. Yes, Judaism does give us a wonderful recipe for life. Yet it is much more: it prepares us for our ultimate encounter with our Creator. For as wholesome and meaningful as our 80 or 90 years down here may be, this world can truly be seen as no more than the entranceway before that ultimate Banquet Hall. Let us prepare ourselves while we still have time.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org