Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is comparable to an antechamber before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.

He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the world to come. And a single moment of bliss in the world to come is greater than all of this world.

Ethics of the Fathers, 4:16-17

            

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yaakov once witnessed the tragic death of a young man who, at that very moment, was engaged in fulfilling the two very mitzvos for which the Torah promises "long life."

"Honor your father and your mother," reads the fifth of the Ten Commandments, "that your days be lengthened, and that good befall you." The one other mitzvah for which the Torah specifically promises reward is shiluach hakan ("dispatching the nest"): "If you happen upon a bird's nest ... and the mother bird is sitting upon the young or upon the eggs, do not take the mother bird along with the young. Send away the mother bird, and you may then take the young for yourself, that good may befall you and that your days be lengthened."

And yet, here was a man who was fulfilling both the commandments simultaneously. At his father's request, he had climbed a ladder to chase away a mother bird from her nest and collect the chicks. But no sooner had he done so than he slipped from the ladder and fell to his death.

"Where are this person's `long days'?'' asked Rabbi Yaakov. "Where is the `good' he was promised? But, when the Torah says `that your days be lengthened,' it is referring to a world that is wholly long; and when the Torah says `that good befall you,' it is referring to a world that is wholly good."

"Rabbi Yaakov," concludes the Talmud, "is of the opinion that there is no reward for mitzvos in this world" - a view expressed in the Ethics by Rabbi Tarfon (``Know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come'') and reiterated by Maimonides in his codification of Torah law, the Mishneh Torah.

Another talmudic sage, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, quotes the verse "You shall keep the mitzvah, the decrees and the laws which I command you today to do them" - "today to do them," Rabbi Joshua reads in the verse's meaning, "and not to do them tomorrow; today to do them, and tomorrow to receive their reward."

In other words, "the present world" and "the world to come" represent two entirely different modes of existence, which, for some reason, must each be confined to a world all its own. Our present existence is the environment for deed and achievement, but without the possibility to enjoy the fruits of our labor. On the other hand, the ``world to come'' is a world of ultimate reward, bliss and perfection, but one that precludes any further achievement on the part of man. The Talmud goes so far as to quote the verse, "There will come years of which you will say: I have no desire in them," and declare: "This refers to the days of the Messianic Era, in which there is neither merit nor obligation."

Why this dichotomy? On the most basic level, this is a function of G‑d's granting freedom of choice to man, without which our deeds would be devoid of moral significance. A world in which the benefits of obeying the Almighty's commandments are self-evident would obviously lack the challenge and the sacrifice which makes their observance worthy of reward. So in this world, G d created an environment in which neither Himself nor the divine nature of His commandments are openly manifest. A world in which surface appearances shroud and distort the Divine truth a world in which people engaged in life lengthening mitzvos fall off ladders challenging us to choose between good and evil, between faithfulness to our mission in life and its corruption. Only such a world can serve as the arena for meaningful accomplishment.

The Physics of Will

However, our material world's concealment of the Divine truth is much more than an orchestrated moral challenge. On a deeper level, this concealment is significant to the nature of the mitzvos themselves.

The mitzvos are primarily physical deeds performed with physical objects: animal hides are fashioned into tefillin and wrapped around one's head and arm; flour and water become the instrument of a mitzvah in the form of the matzah eaten on Passover; a ram's horn is sounded on Rosh Hashana; a citron and palm fond are taken on Sukkot. For the physical world is ultimately the most appropriate environment for the function of the mitzvah to be realized.

"The mitzvos relate to the very essence of G d" is a mainstay of chassidic teaching. But the very notion of something relating to another thing's essence is a philosophical oxymoron. The "essence" of something is the thing itself, as opposed to manner in which it affects and is perceived by that which is outside of it. Hence the philosophical axiom: "The essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself." In other words, if you see it, it is not the thing itself that you see, only the manner in which it reflects light and imprints an image on your retina; if you understand it, then it is not the thing itself that you comprehend, only a concept which your mind has pieced together by studying its effect on other things; and so on.

Nevertheless, G d desired to project His essence into the created reality. This is the function of the mitzvos: through observing His commandments and fulfilling His will, we "bring" the very essence of G d into our lives. And this is why He chose the physical object as the medium of the mitzvah's implementation.

Spiritual entities (i.e., ideas, feelings, etc.) intrinsically point to a source, a cause, a greater reality that they express and serve. The spiritual is thus the natural medium for the various expressions of the Divine reality that G‑d chose to convey to us - unlike the physical, whose deeper significance is buried deep beneath the surface of its corporeality, the spiritual readily serves as the expression of a higher truth.

But when it comes to the projection of G‑d's essence, the very ``virtues'' of the spiritual disqualify it: its capacity to convey, to reveal, to manifest, runs contrary to the introversive nature of ``essence.'' Here, the physical object, the most non-transcendental element of G‑d's creation, is the most ideal vehicle for G d's essence capturing mitzvos.

A physical object merely is: "I am," it proclaims, "and my being is wholly defined by its own existence." As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G‑d's medium of choice for man's implementation of His will.

In other words, the object of the mitzvah is not a ``manifestation'' of the Divine. Were it to reflect Him in any way, were it to reveal anything of the ``nature'' of His reality, it would, by definition, fail to capture His essence. But capture His essence it does, simply because He willed it to. G‑d, of course, could have willed anything (including a manifest expression of His reality) to convey His essence, but He chose a medium that is most appropriate according to logical laws he established in creating our reality - a reality in which ``essence'' and ``expression'' are antithetical to each other. He therefore chose the material world, with its virtual blackout on any revealed expression of G‑dliness, to serve as the ``tool'' with which we perform the mitzvos and thereby relate to His essence.

Better For Whom?

"The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah," say our sages. For all pleasures and satisfactions (indeed, the very concepts of pleasure and satisfaction) were created by G‑d. So what greater delight can there be than to experience the Divine essence, the source of all pleasure? Were it possible for a human being to perceive what transpires each time he fulfills G d's will in his daily life, he would experience the very essence of bliss.

But the very nature of what is accomplished by the performance of a mitzvah precludes the possibility of such ``reward'': as explained above, the concealment of the Divine reality which categorizes our material-bound existence is what makes it the appropriate medium for the drawing down of G‑d's essence. Reward can only come in a future world, a world that reveals rather than obscures its Creator. And yet, the world to come, precisely because of its manifest G‑dliness, can serve only as the environment for the reward of the mitzvah, but not for its implementation.

Thus, Rabbi Yaakov states in our mishnah: "A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the world to come. And a single moment of bliss in the world to come is greater than all of the present world."

Regarding the Almighty's purpose in creation the drawing down of His essence into the physical creation a single positive act on the part of man is more meaningful than all the bliss experienced in the World To Come. Yet the performer of the mitzvah remains in the dark. Although he may be aware of the value of what he is doing, he is unable to perceive it and experience it. On the experiential level, a single moment of bliss in the World To Come is greater than all the joys of our present world.

The Banquet Hall

In light of this, one may ask: Why bother with the reward at all? If G d's purpose in creation is realized in our present day lives, of what significance is our personal satisfaction?

One possible answer is that the need for a World to Come is a function of G d's commitment to justice and fairness. In the words of our sages, "G d does not deprive any creature of its due." If man is instrumental in satisfying G d's desire in creation, he deserves the satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of his labor.

But this certainly does not describe the ultimate significance of the World to Come. Rabbi Yaakov prefaces his above quoted saying by comparing our world to an antechamber leading to the banquet hall, which is the World to Come. Clearly, then, the World to Come is not a footnote to our world, but its purpose and goal, a theme that is reiterated by many sayings by our sages.

How, then, do we reconcile this with the concept that "the essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself"? And that it is, therefore, our present world, because of its spiritual darkness and inexpressiveness, that facilitates the drawing down of G d's essence and thereby realizes His purpose in creation?

Truly Him and Truly Here

In applying terms such as "essence" and "expression" to the Almighty, we must bear in mind that it is He who created logic and its laws. Obviously, He is not governed or limited by any rational "axioms."

Nevertheless, He wishes to relate to our world as it is. So He chooses to make His relationship with us consistent with the basic "truths" that define our reality.

Indeed, since the purpose of creation is that the essence of the Divine should be drawn down into the physical reality, the objective is to do so on its (the physical reality's) terms, not by overriding them. So if the logical laws that govern our reality and dictate that "expression" is incompatible with "essence," our bringing of G dliness into the world is to be achieved "blindly," without any perceptible manifestations of the Divine essence.

On the other hand, however, if G d's essence is truly to enter our reality, He must enter it as He is, without hindrance or inhibition. If His reality tolerates no limits or definitions, "revelation" must be no less conducive to His essence than "concealment."

In other words, for Him to be here implies two (seemingly contradictory) truths: if He is to be truly here, then His presence must be consistent with our reality; yet if it is truly He who is here, He must be here on His terms.

This is why created existence has two distinct components: the Present World and the World to Come the process and its culmination. The process of drawing down the Divine essence into the created reality is carried out under an obscuring veil of corporeality, in keeping with the created rule that "the essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself." At the same time, the product and end result of this process are a world in which G d is uninhibitedly present, in which also the expressions of His reality fully convey the quintessence of His being.