These are Questions and Answers based on Review Sheets that I gave out many years ago. I have elaborated and added to them. Much of this material has already been posted on my sichot and I will refer you to them (when I'll remember). However, there is a lot of new material, which I hope you will enjoy. Of course, these answers are not meant to be an exhaustive study on these basic questions. They are only a "tip of the iceberg" to whet your appetite to look up in the relevant seforim and learn more.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all those people who have taken the time to read my sichot and especially those who have sent beautiful letters which encourage me to try to produce more. I invite everyone to comment or ask questions. I cannot guarantee that I will respond but, bli neder I will try.
1) Q. What is the significance of starting off Pirkey Avos with the Mishna of "All Yisroel has a share in the World to Come. . . " (which is really the first Mishna in the last Perek of Sanhedrin.)?
A. A person does something with more enthusiasm when he knows the benefits he will reap from what he's doing. Just like when a person builds a house, he works with enthusiasm, because he knows that when he finishes it, he'll be able to live in it. We therefore read this Mishna before each Chapter as it reminds us of the fruits that we will reap by doing Torah and Mitzvos, and that is the "World to Come".
However, people wonder, if all Yisroel has a share in the World to Come then why work hard? Apparently, even if a person is immoral and corrupt he seems to be guaranteed a share!
Rav Sholom Shwadron, may he have a refuah shleima, quoted by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, in his book, The Magid Speaks, (p. 263-"A Share for Whom?) addresses this question. Rav Shalom points out that the Mishna states that every Jew has a share "ÉLÉOOlom Habo" Had the Mishna meant to say that every Jew has a share in the world to come, it would have said "ÉBÉOOlom Habo" (the prefix "beis" means "in"). Rather it says "ÉLÉOOlom Habo" which means "towards" Olom Habo (the prefix "lamed" means towards").
Rav Sholom explains this point with a beautiful moshol from Rav Chaim of Volozhin.
A father had twin sons whom he supported until their twentieth birthday. At that time he gave them each a parcel of land and told them that from now on they would have to work this fertile land and yield their own crops. However, since it takes a while for the crops to grow, he would continue to support them for one more year, until the first crops are ready. If they would work hard this year they would yield many crops by next year. One son heeded this advice and toiled arduously over his land. The other one didn't worry so much because at least right now he had sustenance. As a result, by next year, the first son had beautiful crops, while the second one had weeds and thorns.
The same is true with us. When we our young, Hashem gives us a "parcel of land", our physical body and our spiritual soul. We must plow, plant, seed and tend this parcel, that is to do Torah and Mitzvos, and then we will reap the efforts of our harvest in the World to Come. If we don't then we just end up with weeds and thorns.
The Mishna is telling us: Every Jew, even the sinner, can look forward to a share in Olom Habo, but he has to prepare himself properly for it.
2) Q. How can we understand Olom Habo?
A. The Rambam writes in his commentary on Mishnayos in Sanhedrin Perek Chelek on the Mishna of "All Yisroel. . . ", that just as a blind man cannot perceive and understand colors, so too our bodies, which are physical, can't perceive spiritual pleasures.
(In fact they tell a story about a medical argument that the Rambam had with the Doctors of his time. The Doctors were of the opinion that even a person who was blind from birth, can be cured. The Rambam differed and maintained that vision can only be restored to a person who was born with visibility. There is no cure for a person born blind [This has no reflection on our times as the Rambam was talking about the medicine that was available hundreds of years ago]. The doctors cured a person who they "claimed" was born blind, seemingly disproving the Rambam. The Rambam started to test the vision of this patient and he seemed to see very well. The Rambam then brought forth a red cloth and asked the patient what color it was? When the patient replied it was red, the Rambam declared him a fraud. He said that if he was indeed blind from birth, he would have no concept of colors, and therefore it would be impossible for him to know what red was. Evidently he was not blind from birth as he had claimed to be.)
Nevertheless, we can relate somewhat to "Olom Habo" as the Mesilas Yeshorim (chp 1) explains that it's the place that was prepared for the "greatest pleasure from all the pleasures. . . " that is the pleasure of "l’hisaneg al Hashem Yisborach, v’laihanos m’ziv Sh’cinaso" - To have pleasure with Hashem and to bask in His Glory. "
My Rebbi would give us an example of an incredible "pleasure simulating" machine. All that is necessary is to sit in a chair and push the various buttons. Each button causes the person sitting in the chair to simulate a different type of pleasure, like eating different types of pleasurable foods (e.g. steaks). He also worked out this machine that it shouldn't have the problem of the "Law of Diminishing Returns", meaning that the tenth milkshake doesn't taste as good as the first. I also relate to a somewhat spiritual pleasure by imagining the euphoria and ecstasy that one feels when he goes to the airport to greet his parents whom he hasn't seen for a long time, (especially if they brought him some "goodies" from the good ol' U. S. A. )
There is a beautiful Medrash in Koheles about Olom Habo as I've brought down in "Do It For Mom And Dad" sicha.
Shlomo Hamelech in his great wisdom, writes (Koheles 5:14) "As he had come from his mother's womb, naked will he return, as he had come." He is stressing the fact that a person dies and goes to the Next World, he cannot take anything physical from this world along with him. This is beautifully illustrated in the Midrash Rabboh on the possuk. It brings a parable of a fox who saw grapes in a vineyard enclosed by a fence. The fox circled around the fence hoping to find an entrance, but there was none. Finally the fox spotted a small crack in the fence, but he was too big to fit through the tiny hole. The fox came up with an idea. He would fast until he was thin enough to fit through the crack. After three days of fasting, the fox was thin enough to fit through. Once on the other side, the hungry fox ate all the grapes he could. When the fox was ready to leave he tried to exit via the same crack, but he discovered that he was again too big and could not fit through the hole. The fox was forced to fast another three days until he’d be able to come out through the hole. Once he left, he turned to the vineyard and said,
"Oh vineyard, oh vineyard, how beautiful you are; but what good are you - the way I came in (hungry) is the way I came out".The Midrash concludes,
"So too is this world. The way we come in is the way we come out. we can't take anything with us except for Torah and mitzvos".The Midrash makes another interesting observation. When a child is born he has clenched fists, as if to say I will conquer the whole world; but when he dies, his hands are outstretched, as if to say, I have taken nothing with me. This point is stressed in Pirkei Avos (6:9) "nothing escorts the deceased into the grave except Torah and Mitzvos". (My brother told me about a woman, [I think it was Mayer Nochlin's Mother,] who requested to have put in her grave all of the receipts that she got from Yeshivas.)
Unfortunately our problem is that we tend to forget this. We concentrate more on our temporary existence in this world, rather than planning ahead for our permanent existence in the world to come. Rav Shalom Shwadron shlit"a compares this to a person who is about to make aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, having to make a brief stopover in France on the way. Instead of studying Hebrew, the language he will need for the rest of his life, he bothers to study French. How foolish is this man?! Well, concludes Rav Shalom, if we worry more about this world, than the next world, we are no different than this fool.
There is another moving parable about Olom Habo that I saw in Rabbi Tatz's book, "Anatomy of a Search" p. 58. He tells of a moshol from the Chofetz Chaim that was said over by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Shlita.
A man was shipwrecked, and swims to shore. On the shore he is greeted by a group of people who dress him in royal robes and make him their King. He enjoys wealth, marries and begins to raise a family. He finds everything very strange but doesn't confide in anyone. Finally, he decides to ask one of his advisors. He takes him to a private chamber and asks him, "What's going on here?"
The advisor tells him that it's good that you asked, because not everybody does. What happens is that every year someone gets washed up onto our shore and we make him King for the year. At the end of the year we take him down to the shore and strip him of his royal garments. He is then pushed out in a small boat, naked as the day that he arrived.
The king then asks the advisor what he should do.
"Export, " replies the advisor. "During this year, send your wife and family and everything you own overseas and export all the wealth that you can. Send everything to a secure place overseas. That is the only sensible course of action.
The King follows this wise advise and exports all he can throughout the year. Sure enough at the end of the year he is marched down to the shore, disrobed, and sent out alone in a small wooden boat. But far from heartbroken, he begins rowing for the mainland - for he has somewhere to go where he is a very wealthy man.
This, of course, is the story of life. A person is born into this world naked and finds himself dressed and cared for in royal fashion. All his needs are cared for and he lives in the palace of the world. If he is wise, he wonders what is going on here and takes counsel with his trusted advisor, the Intellect. His Intellect tells him that there is definitely something going on here, and it's unrealistic to pretend that life is indefinite; very soon it's all over.
What should he do? Since he knows that he's inevitably bound to leave, the sensible thing to do is to export everything of value that is exportable - the non-physical commodities of Torah and Mitzvos. The wise man spends his adult life, that phase which begins when he is able to take counsel with his intellect, engaged in spiritual growth. And when the brief period is over and he is bidden farewell and sent off in a small wooden container, naked and alone, his heart sings within him for he has family and untold wealth in a great land where existence is permanent.
3) Q. What high level do we need to ask, "What is man's aim in life. Why was he created?"
A. My Rebbi used to tell us that one may think that this is a question that is reserved for "armchair philosophers". However, the truth is that we find the Mesilas Yeshorim, a sefer which is written not just for deep thinkers, starts off his sefer with this very question.
Consequently, we see that all you need is simple emunah that Hashem created us and simple common sense. This can be understood with an interesting example. In camps we have a favorite contest known as "Color War". The entire camp is split into two teams of different colors, each led by a general. The teams compete against each other in various activities. Much preparation goes into these activities and many times the counselors are up all night making songs, skits and cheers. A typical scenario is the morning lineup where the general gives out the activities. When the lineup is almost over, a lone counselor, who woke up late, comes running to the general to find out what he's supposed to do. Upon hearing that his destination is the baseball field he dashes straight there. When he arrives he realizes that he forgot to ask the general exactly what position in the game he is supposed to play. So, he starts asking the other counselors if he's supposed to play first base, pitch, catch, . . . Now we all understand that his question is in order.
However, there is a similar scenario that we would find quite strange. Suppose a counselor is on his day off and he decides just to walk leisurely around camp. He walks to the baseball field and sees a baseball game already in progress. He starts asking the counselors, if he's supposed to pitch, catch, play first base. . . . The other counselors look at him like he's crazy.
What's the difference between the two scenarios? How come in the first scenario the question is in order and in the second, the same exact question is looked upon as if it were coming from a madman?
The answer is simple. In the first scenario, the "General" sent him to the baseball field. If the General sent him there then ultimately he has a job to do there Otherwise the General wouldn't have sent him there. Now it's quite understandable that he should go to find out what that job is. Hence, the question is in order.
However, in the second one, he wasn't sent by the "General". Instead, he just happened to come to the baseball field on his own. Who said that he has any job to do?!
So it follows logically that if we have simple belief that Hashem created us then that means that the "General of all generals" has sent us into this big "baseball field". We now understand, if we have simple common sense, that if the "General" sent us then we must have a job. So let's look in the Torah, which is what the General gave us, and find our job.
I once saw a book based on the Mesilas Yesharim, called "Challenge of Eternity", written by Rabbi Shabsi Vigder and Rabbi Elchonon Brog. The first Chapter is called, "Why?"
It goes something like this: (Unfortunately, I don't have access to it now, so I'll have to rely on my memory).
"Why? Why was I created. . . Idiot! Imbecile! Fool! Blockhead! Is there any word that can describe the person that ignores this question. Ponder this question as you would the world's most momentous question, because that is precisely what it is. . . All else pales in the light of this question. . . "
I always give another example that shows us the importance of knowing our aim and destination in life. Those of us from good ol' New York , especially from the lower East Side, where I'm from, will remember the "F" train. (Bing Bong! Watch the closing doors, have a nice day, [don't get mugged. . . ] Next stop West 4th St. Change there for the "A". "D", . . . trains on the upper level. . . not bad for a guy who hasn't been there for many years).
Well, suppose you come to token seller and ask him where to get the "F" train. He should (if he has brains, which is not always the case) ask you a simple question before answering you. Where do you want to go? Uptown or Downtown? The answer will make a world of difference which platform to board the train from. The train at one platform will take you to your destination, while the other train will take you in the complete opposite direction. So until we know our true destination (we may think we have a destination but it could be the wrong one) we can't truthfully know from which side to take it.
In this world we also have many "trains" to catch and we have to know on which side to catch them. If we go to the wrong side, it will take us completely in the wrong direction. Consequently, we have to know our true aim and destination in life to know on which side to catch the train.
I always compare our brains to computers. A computer gives output based on its input. The problem is that its output is totally dependent on its input so much so, that if it is missing data or programmed with incorrect data it can only give out a wrong output. As they say in computer language, "G. I. G. O"- Garbage In, Garbage Out. We also go around constantly producing output based on our input. Our advantage is that we are self-programming. We choose what data to "save" and what to "delete". Consequently, our output decisions should constantly be upgraded as we improve our input. We should also be aware of where to get this input such as shiurim that teach us the Torah way of viewing things.
In "Reader's Digest Tidbits", I underscore this point with a story of Mahatma Ghandi the Prime Minister of India.
When Mahatma Ghandi, Prime Minister of India, was asked how he always would say one thing today and change his mind tomorrow he replied, "I have learned new things since then, and realized that what I said yesterday was based on false concepts, but now I know better. "(If the Prime Minister of India was not ashamed to admit this in public, than how much more so should we admit this to ourselves. We are constantly making decisions based on what we knew "yesterday". That knowledge often contains numerous false concepts, and lacks many true Torah concepts. We must constantly "upgrade" our decisions as we get smarter in Torah . Of course it helps to have a Rebbi to help us in that area.)
To illustrate how our distorted input affects our decisions, I usually ask two questions.
First I ask what criteria went into a bochur's decision as to which yeshiva to go to in Eretz Yisroel?
Usually I get an answer that it was dependent on various factors. How the food and dorm is, where his friends are going, the proximity to Yerushalaim, especially Ben Yehuda, and I guess the Rabbeim and the curriculum also count.
I then ask what criteria would go into your decision if chas v'shalom you had to get an operation in a hospital. How would you decide which hospital to choose? For this question I get a totally different answer.
Suddenly, the food, beds, and even the nurses are irrelevant. The only factor is which hospital has the best medical staff. Why is this different then which yeshivah to go to?
The answer is quite simple. In the case of the hospital, the person's computer-brain has data that says that you're not going for a vacation or to party. This is a serious step in your life. You're going to have an operation which could affect you for the rest of your life. Consequently, food, bed and even nurses are trivial. What good will they do, if the medical staff is not as good as other hospitals?!
Yet, by the yeshiva, our data is a little mixed up. It should register just like the operation. You're going to a yeshiva which is a serious step in your life. It could affect you for the rest of your life. Consequently, food and dorm are trivial. What good will they do if the Rebbeim and curriculum wont knock some sense into our heads and teach us our real goal in life and how to enjoy it better? Instead, it registers that we're going to party or have a vacation. Consequently, we can make a totally erroneous decision which will have a bad effect on the rest of our lives.
I also found that the same problem applies by polls. Newspapers and magazines are very free in calculating (so-called) public opinion about vital issues by way of polling the "man in the street". If the majority feel that the President is not handling a particular crisis correctly, then a public outcry is printed in the newspaper with a demand of change of policy. For example, I remember the Iranian hostage crisis when President Carter was presiding. Newsweek had a big poll showing how the American public were not supporting Carter's policy and demanded an immediate change, including using nuclear weapons.
I always wanted to write a letter to them that it's a tremendous chutzpah to equate the President's opinion to that of the typical "man in the street".
Let's analyze what the President's opinion is based on. I would imagine, he doesn't just read the newspaper, Newsweek, and Reader's Digest or watch CNN. He gets together various experts in their respective fields such as hostage expert, foreign affairs expert, nuclear weapons expert, etc.. These experts are men who have studied and researched their respective fields for many years, and are considered the top experts in their fields. They give all their expert data into the President’s computer-brain and the President makes his decision based on expert data.
On the other hand, the typical "man on the street" bases his opinion about matters on emotion, prejudice and what side of the bed he got up that particular morning. If he happens to know how to read, then he even bases it on whatever the newspapers have to say which is also based on emotion and prejudice.
Then they have the chutzpah to compare the two opinions as if they are equals. Isn't it possible that if the "man on the street" would have the expert data that the President had, maybe he would agree with the President. Consequently, these polls are very misleading.
Well, the truth is, as I said before, that I always wanted to write them a letter but somebody else beat me to it. A famous Chicago Tribune journalist, Mike Royko (he must be famous, the Reader's Digest is always quoting him) wrote a very interesting rebuttal on a well known "innocence or guilt of O. J. Simpson" poll. This pretty much saved me the job. I mentioned it in Reader's Digest Tidbits. It says as follows:
"The fact is that the vast majority of Americans get their news in broadcast snippets and base their opinions on emotion and prejudice. The O. J. Simpson case isn't about public opinion. It is about evidence, both physical and circumstantial. The only opinions that matter are those of the jury and the judge."
He also wrote an article about a poll on what is a fair salary that doctors should make. He asks, How can people who don't even know how much time and money doctors put in before they become doctors, how can they calculate what a fair salary is?
(We now understand that people have to realize the limits of what they are basing their opinions on. We also recognize that there are higher authorities, who are in better position to decide certain things (even if it contradicts our opinions) because they can base their decisions on more knowledge and less emotional information. So too, when it comes to the Torah, we must defer our opinions to those of the Rabbis. The Rabbis, know much more Torah than we and are less biased. Consequently they can come to a truer conclusion. Just as a fellow who wants to invest in stocks doesn't do it without first consulting a stockbroker. Why doesn’t he rely on his own opinion? Obviously he realizes that his knowledge of stocks is minuscule compared to that of a top-notch stockbroker. So too we need a Rebbi to help us know what does Hashem want from us?)
Unfortunately, we are always making the same mistake . When it comes to our lives we make many important decisions based on our desires and biases.
The sefer Growth Through Torah, by Rabbi Pliskin, (Parshas Beshalach p. 171) quotes a similar point from the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv.
He writes that there is a fundamental principle that a person's will and desires blinds his intellect. When a person has a strong will he will act as irrational as a person who is crazy. His bias will convince him that what he plans to do is sensible even though any simple person can easily tell him that he will be harming himself by his actions. (Chochmo Umussar vol. I p. 316.)
Rabbi Pliskin adds that just as a blind person cannot see, so too a person who is blinded by his will cannot think straight. He also points out that often we wonder afterwards (when the bias wears off) how we could have make such a stupid mistake. He therefore suggests that whenever you have a strong will that might be biasing your thinking, consult other people who are unbiased to find out how they think about the matter.
I will end off this discussion with a true story that happened to me. When I was first engaged, about 19 years ago a friend of mine, who represented a famous band, approached me. Since one of the duties of the groom is to hire the band, he asked me to hire his band as they would make my wedding real "lebedik-lively". In reality I was very much into Jewish music and I liked his band and would have hired him on the spot. However, I told him that my future father-in-law had a nephew that had a small time band and that he wanted me to hire his nephew. I then received a lecture in realizing that YOU are paying for the band so You should decide who it will be. You shouldn't let your father-in-law tell you what to do. I knew I had a bias for my friend's band, that they would probably make my wedding more lebedik, and therefore could not make an objective decision. I was smart enough to tell him that I would get back to him.
I called my Rebbi that night, and explained my dilemma. He answered me very simply. He said , "What is a band? It makes noise which they call music. Some make more noise than others. For a few hours of more noise, you're going to run the risk of starting off your relationship with your new father-in-law on the wrong foot?!"
What he told me was so obvious that I wondered why I didn't think of it myself? The answer is what we said before when you're biased you are blind and you can't think straight.
Let us learn this lesson and daven to Hashem, especially in "Ato Chonen L'odom Daas" and in the brocho of "Hashiva Shofteinu. . Vayotzeinu. . " to give the brains and true advisors to help us make the right decisions in life in the true spirit of the Torah.
(When I started writing this, I didn't realize that some of these questions would take so long to answer. I usually don't like to post things on the Internet until it's finished. However, in this case I realize that it could take quite a long time. Therefore, I'm taking a break now, and will post what I have so far. Bli neder, B'ezras Hashem, I hope to update it periodically by adding new questions and answers little by little as my time allows me. I hope that you enjoy and gain from what I have written so far).
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