The Talmud relates1 that the great Sage R. Yochanan ben Zakkai wept before his death, saying: “There are two paths stretching before me, one to Gan Eden [Heaven] and one to Gehinom. I know not on which I shall be led.”

It goes without saying that R. Yochanan ben Zakkai was concerned as to whether he had attained a sufficient level of holiness to enter Gan Eden. Why did he voice his apprehension only on his deathbed? His spiritual status should have been an ongoing concern.

Every Jew is entrusted with a unique Divine mission that he is to accomplish during his lifetime. He is allotted a specific time in which to accomplish that task — not one day more and not one day less.2

When a Jew fails to make use of a day, an hour, or even a moment, in pursuit of his mission, he not only fails to achieve his fullest spiritual potential, but more importantly, he has failed — during those moments — to accomplish his entrusted task.

R. Yochanan ben Zakkai spent every moment of his life totally immersed in his mission, so much so that he simply did not have time to pause and contemplate his own spiritual level. It was only at the conclusion of his mission — just prior to his demise — that he was able to ponder his own status.

The importance of absolute dedication to one’s mission is also alluded to in the Torah portion of Mishpatim , wherein Scripture states:3 “You will serve G‑d… No woman will miscarry or remain childless in your land; I will make you live out full lives.”

In spiritual terms, the above verses mean that4 when performed with proper intent, Divine service leads to ever greater spiritual heights — it “bears children.” When, however, a person is self-satisfied in his service, it fails to produce the desired results — he “miscarries” and is spiritually “barren.”

One can guard against this by “living out a full life.” I.e., a person should realize that he is granted a specific number of years. Every moment wasted on something other than his appointed task constitutes an act of rebellion against G‑d, who entrusted him with his sacred mission.

When a person realizes this, he will gladly sacrifice all sense of ego, and concentrate solely on completing his assignment. Eventually he will become so absorbed that he will even forget that it is he who is fulfilling it; the mission in general and the task at hand will fill his mind completely.

When someone else inquires about such a Jew’s spiritual state, he will respond: “How can I possibly think about myself when I have been granted only a limited number of days in which to fulfill my purpose in life? I must constantly be on guard to assure that not one precious moment is lost; I simply do not have time to think about my spiritual achievements!”

When a Jew attains this level of self-abnegation, G‑d blesses him with “a full life”; even if there were days in which he did not fulfill his mission, or worse yet, acted in a counterproductive manner, G‑d promises him that the missing days will be made up. Ultimately, all his days become whole.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XVI pp. 271-274