“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.”
Last week we posed a number of questions on our mishna. First, we noted that many of the blessings of our mishna are decidedly physical — looks, strength, wealth, honor. These are qualities which the Sages usually have little positive to say of. They usually draw us away from G-d and towards physical indulgence. Why here do the Sages wish them upon the righteous?
Second, we noted that the Sages do not exactly *promise* these blessings here. Our mishna just writes that it would be “nice” if the righteous would receive them. Is our mishna just musing: it would be nice — but it will probably never happen anyway? What exactly is the point of “wishing” for such blessings? Either they’re deserved and to be expected — and so our mishna should promise them — or they are not deserved — and so we should not hope for them either?
Last, we noted that the Sages admit quite frankly that the wicked are usually the ones who inherit this world. G-d typically “pays them off” for the little bit of good they do down here — in order to utterly obliterate them from the World to Come. (We are talking, of course, about the thoroughly and irredeemably evil, not your run-of-the-mill bad egg — nor the vast majority of us who are basically decent people but certainly have debts to pay off by the time we depart this world. For the average individual, purgatory comes after death and typically lasts less than a year. The soul will then be cleansed and will eternally commune with G-d — to the extent the person prepared himself for such in this world.) When and where will such blessings — physical and spiritual — become the lot of the righteous?
We began our explanation by introducing an important principle. We quoted the ethical work Ma’alas HaMiddos which explains that although the wicked enjoy many of the comforts of this world, the Prophet Isaiah teaches us that they are never granted peace. “‘There is no peace,’ says my L-rd, ‘for the wicked'” (57:21).
As we explained, the reason for this is simple. Peace (meaning peace of mind, not simply the absence of war) cannot be invented. G-d cannot “give” it to someone. The wicked man who craves pleasure, who forever desires greater wealth and honor, can never experience true tranquility and peace of mind. He will always want that which is not his. No matter how much he has he will always crave for more. Rather than physical blessings sating him, they will whet his appetite for even more pleasures and honor.
And thus, although on the surface the wicked seem to be living it up, their souls know no peace and rest. They lack the key ingredient for pleasure; they have not the state of mind to be satisfied with that which they have been granted. And so, in spite of looks, fame and fortune, their souls will be forlorn, empty and miserable — perhaps often distracted from but never truly content with their pitiful lot in life.
This, however, is not the case with the righteous. Regarding them Isaiah states, “Deeds of righteousness will [result in] peace” (32:17). The person who devotes his soul to G-d can enjoy this world without the same hollow feeling the wicked experience. They do not live for physical pleasure. Their souls are fully sated with their knowledge of Torah and closeness to G-d. They feel good about who they are. And so, they can incorporate physical pleasure into their lives. It does not draw them away from G-d. If anything, it further enhances their appreciation for the G-d who has granted them so much. Such people will experience a sense of peace in their lives: the physical and spiritual will reside in harmony within their beings. They will be granted — in fact they will have earned — a sense of peace and harmony on all levels of their existence. Everything has its place, and their lot will be the true harmony and perfection of the World to Come.
We do not often find such harmony of physical and spiritual in this world. As above, this world is usually the domain of the wicked. There are many reasons for this; we discussed some in a previous class (Chapter 4, Mishna 19). By offering the pleasures of this world to the wicked, not only does G-d pay them off, but the righteous are shielded from the many temptations which might lure them from the path of righteousness. Few of us, even the most devoted, could resist everything the physical world has to offer. Physical pleasures and indulgences — even “permissible” ones (those “glatt kosher” gambling cruises we see advertised) — do little to enhance our religious life. We accomplish the little we do in life because — much as we bemoan it — G-d justly protects us from the wealth, pleasure and honor few of us could handle. An old Jewish saying goes: Never pray too hard for everything your heart desires — for G-d might actually grant it.
But there will be a time in history when this will change. The physical, rather than drawing us away from spirituality, will become a helpmate to it. In fact, this is the true purpose of physical existence. It does not exist solely to tempt us away from G-d — though this is how we accurately perceive it at this point in history. Ultimately, it too will be sublimated and used towards Divine service. At one time during man’s sojourn on earth, all of existence, both physical and spiritual, will become unified in service of the Almighty.
When will this be? As our mishna quotes: “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.” At the time of the ultimate salvation the world will no longer have to be a place of falsehood. G-d will have had enough of paying off the wicked; the good will no longer have to be “kept in line” by denying them the enjoyments of this world. The truth of G-d’s reality will become so evident as to outshine the sun in its brilliance. And likewise, it will be so evidently clear that all reality exists solely in order to exalt G-d that the righteous will no longer find physical pleasure as a deterrent to this end. The physical will in no way obscure G-d’s presence from our perception. The world will be true; spirituality will reign. And all levels of reality will live in harmony and subservience to the ultimate reality of G-d.
But this is not entirely a phenomenon of the End of Days. Our mishna concludes that such greatness was realized in the person of R. Yehuda the Prince. Who was he? He lived at the end of the period of the Mishna (c. 200 C.E.) and was the leading scholar of his generation. He compiled the Mishna into a single, universally-accepted work. (Beforehand, the Mishna had never fully been committed to writing, but existed primarily as oral teachings.) But he was also known for his extreme piety and asceticism. The Mishna writes that when Rebbe (“my teacher,” the term by which he is known) died, true humility and fear of sin went with him to the grave (Sotah 9:15). At the same time, however, Rebbe was fabulously wealthy and close to the Roman Emperor of his day. The Sages also tell us he was descended from King David, although along a female line. Thus, contained in his being were all the qualities of our mishna. He could be considered the highest fulfillment of the human potential, in which all qualities, both spiritual and physical, were realized.
Finally, as our mishna writes, such blessings are not only good for the righteous; they are good for all mankind as well. The world should see and recognize truth. Our world should not always and eternally be a place of falsehood and G-d’s concealment. We should not have to live with suffering and deprivation — watching the wicked enjoy it all, while patiently bearing our lot waiting for the bliss of the World to Come. There will be a time when all the wrongs and injustices of the world will be righted, when the sun and moon will pale before G-d’s truth and magnificence.But even before that time, a few reminders are certainly in line. Truth must not only be an article of faith. G-d from time to time allows us that glimpse of it — throughout history and in our own personal lives. And that glimpse is sometimes all we need to carry us through our most difficult times.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.