What do we really gain after the struggles of a lifetime? Even under the
best of circumstances, life is but a bubbling brew of joy and grief, of
success and failure, of hope and despair. We accumulate wealth and
possessions, and we leave them all behind. So where are life’s rewards?
Are the brief experiences of pride and pleasure, the occasional highs,
sufficient compensation for all the effort we invest in life?
Judaism believes they do not even come close. According to our Sages, this
world is a “vestibule to the next.” It is a world of illusion in which we
have the opportunity to prepare for “the world of truth,” the eternal
world of the spirit, to gather merit which will last us for all eternity.
True reward and punishment cannot be measured by material standards.
If so, ask the commentators, why doesn’t the Torah tell us specifically
about the world to come? For example, in this week’s portion, we read
about the rewards for fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah and the
consequences of failing to do so. What are the rewards? Bountiful crops,
secure borders, prosperity. What are the consequences? A litany of
horrendous calamities, pestilence and mayhem. There is no mention of the
rewards and consequences in the next world, no hint of the eternal bliss
that waits those who fulfill the commandments of the Torah. Why not?
Most people think of reward in terms of receiving something external to
ourselves. We win a major contest, and we receive a new car. We turn in a
criminal to the police, and we receive a check. But these rewards are
basically inferior. Since they derive from external sources, they remain
external to us. They become our possessions but remain separate from us.
They do not improve who and what we are, just what we have.
Spiritual reward is of a completely different nature. When we are rewarded
in the next world we will not be given an object or some other
transferable entity which we will take into our possession to use as en
external stimulus to pleasure. Spiritual reward transforms us from within.
It makes us higher and more refined, more capable of coming close to the
Almighty, and that in itself is the greatest reward.
“The reward for a mitzvah,” the Sages say, “is the mitzvah.” What does
this mean? The sacred texts find a correlation between the word mitzvah
and the word tzavsa, which means connection. The performance of a mitzvah,
they explain, connects you directly to the Almighty. The more mitzvos you
do the more closely connected you become. This connection itself is the
highest form of reward to which we could possibly aspire, and its
achievement is entirely within our power. Conversely, anything we do to
weaken this connection is its own greatest punishment.
The Torah, therefore, does not have to tell us about the rewards and
consequences awaiting us in the next world. They are not external things
Hashem promises to do. They are implicit in the word mitzvah, and they
come to us of their own accord. But here the Torah is telling us that, in
addition to the spiritual implications to the mitzvos themselves, we will
also receive material rewards or punishment, a minor external stimulus to
steer us in the right direction.
A professor in a medical school offered a reward the student who would
score the highest mark on a test in an exceedingly difficult subject. The
students were motivated by the challenge, and they studied very hard. Two
weeks later, the test was administered. One student got a perfect score,
and he was awarded the prize.
The next day, the professor presented him with a gift-wrapped package. The
student thanked the principal profusely.
“Why are you thanking me so much?” asked the professor. “You haven’t even
unwrapped the package. How do you know you’ll like it?”
“Oh, the package is insignificant,” said the student. “Your challenge led
me to learn much I might not have otherwise known. It has given me
priceless insight that will improve my ability to help others for the rest
of my life. Thank you.”
In our own lives, material goals and rewards can easily distract us, and
we may find that we are expending inordinate amounts of physical and
emotional energy in that direction. But life is ephemeral, and those
rewards will not accompany us when we are done. Only the rewards of the
spirit enrich us in a meaningful and lasting way.