Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-two

So. Rabbi Jacob ben Kurshai had been telling us that this room was the vestibule for the World to Come. Does he have anything more to tell us about this world and the world to come? Yes, yes he does. Here is R. Travers Herford’s translation.

He used to say: Better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than all the life of the world to come; and better is one hour of calmness of spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world.

This is worth breaking up into pieces. The first part, that it is good (yafah, which is sometimes used to mean fair, as in attractive) to spend a small amount of time (sha’ar achat, hour one, which Jacob Neusner translates as “a single moment”) in repentence (t’shuvah) and good deeds (ma’asim tovim) in this world olam hazeh). Then a mem, which is held to be the “mem of comparison” (as Mr. Herford puts it), but which could be the mem of causation). All the life of the the world to come, col cheiay olam habah.

Why is this? If the world to come is the dining hall and this world only the vestibule, how can we compare a part of this smaller world with all of the greater?

Because, the Rabbis say, that in the world to come, there is no repentance. No good deeds. No marrying and giving in marriage, no eating and drinking, no charity, no accomplishments or frustrations, no action of any kind. As the sage says:

Therefore, one hour—one minute—of repentance and good deeds is greater than all the life of the world to come, for in the world to come there is no repentance and good deeds, and what else are we made for?

Irving M. Bunim, in his commentary on this verse, tells the story of the Vilna Gaon, who was elderly and dying after a lifetime of piety, study, teaching and good deeds. The Gaon, on his deathbed, surrounded by his students, wept. His students sought to comfort him, telling him that he would soon be rewarded in Heaven; he but left this world for the World to Come. The old man took in his fingers the fringes of his tallis catan, saying to them: I wore this every day. I paid almost no money for it. A scrap of cloth, the strings tied into tzitzis to make the four corners. But every day I wore it, I fulfilled a commandment of the Divine. Now, I have fulfilled that commandment for the last time: in the World to Come, we don’t sleep, rise, dress for the day. We don’t fulfill the mitzvot. I have no more opportunities, even for such a simple mitzvah as this.

In one hour in this world, in one minute, we have opportunities that we will never have in the World to Come, just as I have the opportunity to straighten my clothes in the vestibule; you can only enter the dining hall once, and there is no second chance for a first impression. But then, if repentance and good deeds (only available in this world) are so great, how can the sages say that the pious will receive their reward in the world to come? What sort of reward is it when he can’t eat or drink, love or dance or even do good deeds?

It is the reward of karat ruach, peace of spirit, which (R. Jacob tells us in the second half of the verse) is better than all the life of this world. Nirvana, if you want to think about it like that. The end to troubles is also the end to aspirations. All part of the package.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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