Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, old age, fullness of years, and children are fitting for the righteous and fitting for the world, as it is written: ‘A crown of majesty is old age; it will be found along the path of righteousness’ (Proverbs 16:31). And it says: ‘The crown of the aged is grandchildren, and the glory of children is their fathers’ (17:6). And it says: ‘The glory of young men is their strength, and the majesty of elders is age’ (20:29). And it is written: ‘And the moon will be darkened and the sun will grow ashamed for the L-rd of Hosts rules in Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and before his elders will be honor’ (Isaiah 24:23). Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said: These seven qualities which the Sages listed regarding the righteous were all fulfilled in Rabbi [Yehuda the Prince] and his sons.
This week’s mishna discusses the many blessings which befit the righteous. We are struck almost immediately by a number of issues. First of all, many of the blessings listed are very physical — strength, good looks, wealth, honor. We do not ordinarily associate such things with the righteous: When (except in the movies) are the righteous ever good looking, muscular and rich? (Or perhaps if they were, they would have never become righteous to begin with…)
In fact, the Sages usually have little positive to say of such things. The Talmud tells us that G-d could not find any quality better suited for Israel than poverty (Chagigah 9b). It also writes that homely people typically make better scholars because they are less full of themselves and thus more likely to humbly shoulder the burden of Torah (Ta’anis 7b). Likewise, the Sages view true strength as moral courage and the ability to resist temptation rather than physical power (see earlier, 4:1). And finally, the Talmud condemns honor-seeking in the strongest terms, equating it to idolatry and advising that one go to any extreme to avoid it (see Sotah 4-5).
Some of the others blessings of our mishna — e.g., children, old age — are certainly not as earthy. Although they too are basically physical blessings, they result from a life well and prudently spent. But our mishna also wishes the most physical of blessings upon the righteous. Why, after everything else the Sages have to say about such “blessings”, are they now held in such esteem?
A second issue with our mishna is its wording. It never actually states that the righteous will receive such physical rewards. It merely states that it would be “nice” (“na’eh” in Hebrew, nice or becoming) if they would get them. Well, what is the point of that, and what are we to learn from it? Is our mishna just musing? It would be nice — but it will probably never happen anyway? And of course if it really would be so “nice” (let’s assume that means fitting and appropriate), then why should it not occur? If it’s really deserved, why wouldn’t G-d will it, and so why can’t our mishna promise it?
Finally, the Sages typically view such physical blessings as the lot of the wicked rather than the righteous. The Sages state often that the wicked are the ones who enjoy this world (or at least think they do). G-d “pays them off” in this world for the few good deeds they perform — for they have no place in the World to Come. (All of us should be a little nervous, by the way, if everything in life is just going perfectly…) The righteous, however, often see very little for their efforts in this world. G-d rather pays off their few sins down here so their reward will be complete in the next and ultimate world. (See Talmud Brachos 7a and 61b.) Is our mishna a contradiction to this principle?
There is an important distinction here, one worth pointing out before we arrive at our final answer. It will lead us a great way in the proper direction.
As we pointed out, G-d often blesses the wicked with the creature comforts of this world — pleasure, wealth, looks, honor. They seem to have all the fun the pious never seem able to attain. (Whether such people are pious and so do not strive for pleasure — or they are pious because they cannot get it anyway is not ours to decide. A sarcastic friend of mine (I seem to have a lot of sarcastic friends for reasons I won’t get into 😉 ) once observed how many marginally-orthodox young Jewish men “got into learning” shortly after losing that girlfriend they were running after. (“Well, I wasn’t really that interested anyway.”) But then again, G-d sometimes does us the favor of interfering with our social aspirations in order to get our spiritual ones on track.)
There is, however, an important — nay, crucial — distinction. The author of the work Ma’alos HaMiddos (24) writes that as many blessings as the wicked will receive, there is one they will never merit: peace. The Prophet Isaiah states: “‘There is no peace,’ says my L-rd, ‘for the wicked'” (57:21).
The reason for this is actually simple: G-d cannot “give” a person peace; it cannot be invented. The wicked person, who desires, who craves what others have, who thinks solely of himself, can never have true peace of mind in this world — nor can G-d, a psychiatrist, or any other worldly or otherworldly force grant it to him. Peace in the truest sense is a state of mind, not a lack of belligerence. One who is ruled by his passions cannot sense true peace. He will always crave more; he will always want that which is not his. And his soul will find no rest and contentment. He may partake of all the blessings this world has to offer: G-d will pay him generously for the little bit of good he has performed. Superficially, he will have it all.
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.
Perhaps he does have it all, but he will not truly be able to enjoy it. He will not be at peace with himself, with his lot in life. His life will be empty: lonely, void, and depressing. And all the physical pleasures in the world cannot bring fulfillment to an empty and tormented soul.
Let us now begin to relate this back to our mishna. The righteous do not share the discontent and insecurity of the wicked. They are men of peace. Regarding them Isaiah states, “Deeds of righteousness will [result in] peace” (32:17). And so, as we will see, they can receive the blessings of the physical world and enjoy them too. We will explore this further G-d willing next week.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.