Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: Eternal account
The Jewish people won the war against the Amorites and took possession of the city of Cheshbon and its suburbs. The Talmud explains that "those who rule" refers to those who control their evil inclination. They would say, "Come and let us make a cheshbon, an eternal account." 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 if we follow the dictates of the righteous we will be deprived of many of the enjoyments of this world. We can understand that it is good for us in the World to Come if we live a frugal life here and spend our time in Torah study, but why are we considered fortunate 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 the righteous, who control their evil inclination and have reached the platform of 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. Our gain and loss in this world is limited, whereas our gain and 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, at the same time that we establish our lives in the World to Come.
Towards the end of this week's parasha, the Torah relates how the Jewish people sent messengers to Sichon, King of the Amorites, and requested permission to pass through his land. Sichon did not grant them permission. Instead, he gathered his army and went to war against the Jewish people. The Jewish people won the war, and took possession of the city of Cheshbon and its suburbs.
Moshlim make a cheshbon
After the description of the war, the Torah concludes 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, known to express themselves in poetry and parables. However, 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, for otherwise it is superfluous, not teaching us anything. 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 control their evil inclination. These righteous people would say, "Come and let us make a cheshbon, an eternal account. 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, your life will be well built in this world and firmly established in the World to Come." This seems strange. We can understand that if we live according to the dictates of the righteous, we will establish ourselves well in the World to Come. However, it seems that we will be deprived of many of the enjoyments of this world?
Fortunate life of affliction?
A similar question arises in regard to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (6:4) where it says, "This is the way of 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 us in the World to Come if we live a frugal life here and spend our time in Torah study, but why are we considered fortunate in this world?
The more assets, the more worries
The answer to these questions is that, contrary to common belief, a person who amasses wealth is not necessarily fortunate and does not always feel blessed, 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 often cause a stressful life full of worries and obligations. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:8): "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 quotation from the Talmud and says that only someone who has freed himself from the clutches of the evil inclination has the clarity to see how to make this accounting. 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 to plant. The trees were like walls with paths intertwined amongst them. The goal was to reach a platform in the middle of the maze. The problem was that most of the paths led to nowhere. As long as one walked amongst the trees, it was virtually impossible to know the proper direction, since all the trees looked alike. However, someone who had already reached the platform, could give exact advice and help others find their way through the maze. The ones who were ready to trust this person and listen to his advice would 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 have not gained control over our evil inclination. Therefore, we are still searching for the right path to reach the platform. Only if we are ready to listen to the righteous, who are in control over their evil inclination and have reached the platform of life, can we hope to find the right path to follow and reach the platform in the maze of life.
Cannot see the eternal reward
Our main problem is that, as long as we live in this world, we are unable even to see the platform at the end of the maze, with the eternal reward awaiting us in the World to Come. We only see the rewards and pleasures of this world. This makes it extremely difficult for us to start making an eternal account. 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 lives in poverty and countless people die of starvation every day. The whole world is constantly suffering from wars and 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 Luzzatto explains, we see so much suffering and illness that no intelligent person would suggest that G'd created us just for the sake of our life in this world.
Limited vs. eternal
This, says Rabbi Luzatto, in itself is the greatest proof that there must be another 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 it follows that our gain and loss in this world are also limited, whereas our gain and loss in the World to Come are eternal.
Living in a finite world, we can hardly fathom eternity. The great Mussar scholars use a parable of a bird moving a mountain to give us some understanding of eternity. If we imagine that Mount Everest needs to be 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 account 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 teaches. 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 rewards that await 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 this eternal account, G'd has plenty of blessings to bestow upon us immediately in this world as well. These blessings, and the satisfaction of knowing that we are doing what is right, will help us build our lives in this world, at the same time that we establish our lives in the World to Come.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network