The Story of Life
Chapter 4, Mishna 21
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Yaakov said, this world is like an entrance chamber before the
to Come. Prepare yourself in the entrance chamber so that you may enter the
This mishna puts the world into its proper perspective -- a perspective we
cannot deny yet which rarely enters our everyday thoughts. The commentator
Rashi explains it simply: Life is the waiting room to meet the King. During
our lifetimes, our sole thoughts should be directed towards that imminent
and glorious meeting. While waiting to meet and impress a flesh and blood
king, we would be straightening our clothes and fixing our hair to be sure
we present ourselves as best we can. So too, says Rashi, our lives must be
spent in preparation and anticipation of our meeting with the King of
kings: in good deeds and repentance.
The concept of an entrance hall is apt. We typically think of a waiting
room as a necessary evil -- a place to read a magazine and
otherwise "kill" time while waiting for the "real thing" to begin. This
world is of course far more: we spend our lives here *preparing* for that
meeting with the King. Yet the image of a waiting room carries with it a
great lesson. Our true purpose of existence is closeness to G-d. This
world can never be seen as an ends in itself -- no matter how moral,
meaningful and G-dly our lives are. Although as I've written many times,
Judaism is not an otherworldly religion -- directing us to ignore our
needs in this world and practice self-flagellation, at the same time
neither can this world be seen as a place of true nirvana. "Virtue is its
own reward" contains a great nugget of truth to be sure, but let's face
it, a world of virtue only goes so far. Ultimately, it will pale before
the true and everlasting reward of the faithful in the World to Come.
The Talmud expresses this similarly: "There is no reward [for good deeds]
in this world" (Chullin 142a). Virtuous living is rewarding to be sure --
far more than the loose and unbridled life -- but this world is only the
preparatory phase. The only bliss we can ever truly hope to achieve will be
There is a second great lesson contained in R. Yaakov's words, one which
should greatly alter our attitude towards this world. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin,
known author and lecturer, once explained with the following illustration:
Scenario #1: You are a new employee, first day on the job. Your new boss is
pestering and annoying you to no end -- with poorly-defined tasks,
outbursts, criticism, provocation. Your attitude: "What do I need this for?
This is unbearable! Why did I take this stupid job? Who needs it?" The type
of anger and frustration many of us are unfortunately all too familiar
Scenario #2: The exact same as scenario #1, with one crucial difference: A
new coworker quietly comes over to you at the start of the day with the
following warning: "The position this company actually wants to fill is
that of vice president. It is a top position, one of the most pivotal,
influential and high-paying in the company. However, it carries with it a
lot of pressure. The owners are looking for a person who has what it takes
to handle the kind of pressure, frustration, deadlines and juggling of
responsibilities it will entail. Today they will be checking you out to see
if you can remain cool and composed under those types of circumstances."
Hmmm... VP? The position you've been dreaming of climbing to ever since you
embarked on your career? What will your response be to the provocations and
intimidation of your new boss be now? Eager anticipation! "Lay it on me!
Let me show what I'm made of! This is my big chance!"
This is the story of life.
Life is full of frustrations, annoyances and disturbances which interfere
with the "plans" we waste our time formulating. This is the nature of the
world. It is not without purpose. We often, however, compound our problems
with our own frustrations. We see them as unwelcome nuisances, "ruining"
our lives and serving no purpose. If not for them we could *enjoy*
ourselves and live our lives the way we're *supposed* to. We even wax
theological about our problems: "G-d, why *me*? Why do You visit upon me
misfortune? (We all suffer from the Job complex now and then. Yes, no one
else suffers as I do. *They* all have it easy. I'm the only one in the
world with back problems, hair loss, domestic problems, etc. ;-) I'm
basically a good person! Why can't I be left alone? Do You really dislike
me so much?!"
(Just to complete a thought I began above, we tend to see our own problems
as so much worse than our neighbor's. Of course your back problem is worse
than your neighbor's vision problem because it's *your* back that hurts! We
should keep in mind, however, what we say in Yiddish -- everyone has his
own peckle (package). Not only does your neighbor have his or her own, but
at least you can rest assured yours are tailor-made for you. Someone
else's, even if they don't seem half so bad, are not what G-d in His
infinite wisdom decrees for your own spiritual growth.)
But with such speech and such thoughts, we miss the basic nature -- in fact
the purpose -- of life. G-d does not smite us; He challenges us. Our lives
are a preparation. They refine, toughen and purify us for our ultimate
meeting. When G-d fills our lives with sadness and frustration, He is
testing us and allowing us to realize our potential for good. We must
accept, bear patiently, and turn to G-d with our prayers. In testing us, G-
d is showing that He cares about us and is interested in our growth. We
must in turn show G-d we understand He is the source of our suffering and
we are prepared to use it in the manner He wishes.
In the story of Genesis, the Serpent, for tempting Man to eat of the Tree
of Knowledge, was smitten by G-d with the following curse (among
others): "Dirt you shall eat all the days of your life" (Genesis 3:14).
(The zoological equivalent may be that snakes -- the physical remnant of
the primordial Serpent -- do not chew and "enjoy" their food. They swallow
smaller (and larger) animals whole and are thus denied any pleasure that
may be involved in the eating process.) R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, one
of the great Chassidic masters of 19th Century Poland (known after his
work _S'fas Emes_), asked: What kind of curse is that? If serpents really
eat dirt then they have nothing to worry about! They can find food
wherever they go!
The S'fas Emes answered that there is no greater curse than to have G-d
give you a life's supply of food. It is G-d's way of saying "I want to have
nothing to do with you so long as you live. Here, take all the food and
everything you need for the rest of your life. And don't you ever come back
to Me for seconds." This is a rejection of the most tragic kind. A person
who is given everything he or she wants, who never has to struggle,
suffer -- or pray -- is at an insurmountable distance from G-d. Life
without suffering is life without meaning. When we suffer, it is not
because G-d hates us -- and certainly not because He has forgotten us. It
is because He loves us. And this is something I think we all know in our
hearts. And through the tough love of which life is so full, we can bear,
accept and even enjoy this world, seeing it as the entranceway to that
grand and glorious Banquet.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.