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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas/Balak: Eternal reckoning
The Jewish people won the war against the Amorites, conquered the land and took possession of the city of Cheshbon and its suburbs. The Talmud explains that "those who rule" refers to those who have control over their evil inclination. They would say, "Come and let us make a cheshbon, an eternal reckoning." If a person has an urge to earn money in a dishonest way, he should weigh the monetary gain against the much greater loss in the World to Come. It would appear that by living by the dictates of the righteous who rule their evil inclination one would lose out in this world. We can understand that it is good for person in the World to Come if he lived a frugal life here and spends his time in Torah study, but how can that be described as a fortunate person in this world? "The more assets, the more worries." As long as we are influenced by our evil inclination, we are blindfolded and walk around in darkness. Only those righteous people, who have accomplished to be in control of their inclination and have reached the platform of their life, can advise and teach others which path to follow. Our problem is our inability to see the eternal reward awaiting us in the World to Come. Any gain or loss in this world is limited, whereas any gain or loss in the World to Come is eternal. The great mussar scholars used a parable of a bird moving a mountain to give us some understanding of eternity. G'd has plenty of blessings to bestow upon us in this world. The satisfaction of knowing that we are doing what is right will help us build our lives in this world, while at the same time we establish our lives in the World to Come.
Towards the end of the first of this week's two Torah portions it is related how the Jewish people sent messengers to Sichon, the King of the Amorites, requesting permission to pass through his land. He rejected the request. Instead, Sichon gathered his army and went to war against the Jewish people in the wilderness. The Jewish people won the war, conquered the land and took possession of the city of Cheshbon and its suburbs.
Moshlim make a cheshbon
The Torah concludes this series of events with an unusual verse: (Bamidbar 21:27) "Regarding this the poets ["moshlim" - literally those who express themselves in parables] would say, 'Come to Cheshbon. Let the City of Sichon be built and established.'" The simple meaning of this verse is a veiled reference to Bilaam and his father Beor who were great prophets at that time, and were known to express themselves in poetry with parables. The Talmud (Bava Basra 78b) interprets this verse with a homiletical interpretation. Rashi (ibid) explains that our sages understood that this verse must have a deeper meaning, as it otherwise seems to be superfluous, with no lesson to teach us. The Hebrew word "moshlim" has two meanings. It can either mean "the ones who express themselves in parables", or it could be understood as meaning "those who rule." Using this second meaning, the Talmud explains that "those who rule" refers to those who have control over their evil inclination. These righteous people would say, "Come and let us make a cheshbon, an eternal reckoning. Let us weigh the loss sustained when performing a mitzvah (commandment) against the reward of the mitzvah, and the gain of transgressing an aveirah (prohibition) against its loss."
Losses and rewards
Rashi explains that the Talmud is referring to the loss of revenue a person has when he occupies himself with a mitzvah, rather than using his time and effort to do business. Similarly, when a person gives money to charity, rather than spending it on himself, there is a loss of his personal assets. However, against those losses there is the eternal reward awaiting this person. In the same way, if a person has an urge to earn money in a dishonest way, or through transgressing any other Torah law, he should weigh the monetary gain against the much greater loss in the World to Come.
Built in this world
The Talmud continues its homiletical interpretation and says, "If you conduct yourself in this way, you [i.e. your life] will be built in this world and established in the World to Come." This seems puzzling. We can understand that if people live according to the dictates of the righteous, who rule their evil inclination, they will establish themselves well in the World to Come. However, it would appear that they will be deprived and lose out in this world?
Fortunate life of affliction?
A similar question arises in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (6:4) where it says, "This is the way of the Torah: eat bread with salt and drink water in a small measure; sleep on the ground and live a life of affliction; all while you toil in Torah study. If you do this, you are fortunate and it will be good for you. You are fortunate in this world and it will be good for you in the World to Come." Again, we can understand that it will be good for a person in the World to Come if he lives a frugal life here and spends his time in Torah study, but how can it be described as a fortunate person in this world?
The more assets, the more worries
The answer to both of these difficulties is that, contrary to common belief, a person who amasses wealth is not necessarily fortunate and does not always feel rewarded even in this world. It is definitely true that wealth enables a person to accomplish many of his ambitions in life such as building a mansion, driving a fancy car, and traveling the world. However, his many assets are often the direct cause of a stressful life full of worries and obligations. As our sages (Pirkei Avos 2:8) say, "The more assets, the more worries."
Messengers of the evil inclination
The temptations of this world are the messengers of the evil inclination. They often blind us from seeing the real values and priorities in our life. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Path of the Just, Chapter 3) elaborates on the above words of the Talmud and says that only a person who has freed himself from the clutches of the evil inclination can see with clarity how to make this reckoning. As long as we are influenced by our evil inclination, we are blindfolded and walk around in darkness. In such a state we are bound to make many mistakes, and do not even realize the many pitfalls we encounter throughout our life, till it is too late.
Rabbi Luzzatto compares life to a garden maze that the nobility in Europe used for their pleasure. The trees were made like walls with paths intertwined amongst them. The goal was to reach a platform in the middle of the maze. However, the problem was that most of the paths led to nowhere. As long as one would walk amongst the trees, it would be virtually impossible to know the proper direction to take, since all the trees looked similar. However, if someone had already reached the platform, this person could give exact advice to help others find their way through the maze. The ones who were ready to trust this person and listen to his advice would now easily reach the platform; whereas, the ones who insisted on independently finding their way through the maze would most probably never reach the platform. Says Rabbi Luzzatto, so it is with life; most of us, who have not accomplished to gain control over our evil inclination, are still searching for the right path to reach the platform. Only if we are ready to listen to those righteous people, who have already gained control of their inclination and have reached the platform, can we hope to find the right path to follow and reach the platform in the maze of life.
Can't see the eternal reward
Our main problem is that, as long as we live in this world, we are unable even to see the existence of the platform at the end of the maze, with eternal reward awaiting us in the World to Come. We experience only the rewards and pleasures in this world. This makes it extremely difficult for us to start making an eternal reckoning. However, if we look around us we will notice that at the same time as the world has developed scientifically, with a wealth of information and opportunities available to everyone, it has not accomplished to eradicate suffering and injustice. A major part of the world's population still live in poverty and countless people die of starvation every day. The whole world is constantly suffering either from wars or threats of terrorism. All this clearly shows us that this world, in its present form, cannot be the ultimate purpose of creation of a loving and righteous G'd. Even on a personal level, Rabbi Luzatto explains, there is so much suffering and illness that no intelligent person would suggest that G'd created us for the sake of life in this world.
Limited vs. eternal
This, says Rabbi Luzatto, in itself is the greatest proof that there must be a world after this, a world of reward and goodness, where G'd will repay us for any mitzvah that we did in this world. In addition to this, we must remember that this world is limited whereas the World to Come is eternal. Thus follows that any gain or loss in this world is also limited, and any gain or loss in the World to Come is eternal.
Living in a limited world, we can hardly fathom eternity. The great mussar scholars used a parable of a bird moving a mountain to give us some understanding of eternity. If we imagine the largest mountain in the world being removed by a single bird who only comes once in a thousand years to take away a bit of dirt, it would be impossible for us to make an exact reckoning how long it would take before the mountain disappeared. Suffice it to say that, when this bird has accomplished its task, eternity will still continue.
This is what the Talmud wants us to understand. We must reckon and consider what we have to lose now if we spend our time to fulfill the mitzvoth and obligations of the Torah against the eternal reward that is awaiting us. In the same way, we must weigh what we can gain if we pursue a transaction prohibited by Torah law against the eternal loss we will sustain. And as our sages conclude, if we live according to the lesson of the eternal reckoning, G'd has plenty of blessings to bestow upon us immediately in this world. These blessings and the added satisfaction of knowing that we are doing what is right, will help us build our lives in this world, while at the same time we establish our lives in the World to Come.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network