Enough with Olam Haba Already!
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
“There is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you see it in many modern religions.” (G.K. Chesterton)
What is the goal of living a Torah life? If you ask people this question (as I have!), you’ll hear answers like “I want to be close to Hashem” and “by living a Torah life I fulfill G-d’s will and earn a portion in olam haba (the world to come).”
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, appears to agree. At the beginning of Mesilat Yesharim, he writes that “man was created solely to delight in G-d and to derive pleasure in the radiance of the Divine presence… The place of this pleasure is olam haba… But the path to arrive at the ‘desired haven’ is this world… ‘this world is like a corridor before the world to come’ (Avot 4:16).”
It seems the purpose of life in this world is to acquire our portion in the world to come – where children are always cute and never whine, where Belgian waffles and ice cream are healthy snacks and where we will sit in blissful closeness to Hashem. Case closed!
Or is it? There is something about “olam haba Judaism” that feels small, even selfish. Though belief in the existence of olam haba is a central tenet of our faith, it is telling that the Torah never explicitly speaks about the next world. “A person should never declare that he performs mitzvot and studies Torah… to merit a portion in olam haba… This is not the approach of the prophets or the wise” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 10:1). As Rabbi Moshe Miller puts it, “Living this way… is the life of a prostitute. Yes, the expected payment is a portion in the world to come, but all that does is elevate the transaction to that of a high-priced courtesan…”
Why, then, does Ramchal make olam haba the goal of Jewish life? And if “olam haba Judaism” is not truly our goal, what are we really here to accomplish?
Incredibly, we find the answer in the Mesilat Yesharim itself, in chapter 19 – where Ramchal explicitly rejects his initial argument! “He whose motivation in his divine service is to purify his soul before his Creator… and receive reward in the world to come… does not have the best of motives. As long as a person is motivated by his own benefit, his divine service is for his own self-interest.”
Rather, our true purpose in life is “to serve solely to raise and increase the honor of the Master… [The pious Jew] longs for redemption because then the honor of G-d will be exalted… He prays always for the redemption of Israel… For it is impossible for the honor of G-d to be raised except through the redemption of Israel…”
If so, why does Ramchal stress the importance of olam haba at the beginning of the book? Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook explains that the opening chapter of Mesilat Yesharim is meant for those just beginning a life of serving Hashem. Beginners must reject materialism and choose, instead, a life dedicated to the spirit and olam haba. But this is merely the first step in serving G-d. Every Jew’s true goal must be to increase G-d’s glory in this world – by yearning for and doing our part to bring redemption!
The Jewish people were not chosen merely to learn daf yomi, pay yeshiva tuition and serve faithfully on the shul board’s expansion committee with the goal of earning a portion in the next world. These are all holy mitzvot, but ultimately a means to a far greater end: bringing redemption and G-d’s glory to this world!
“All of Israel have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 90a). Don’t worry – our mansions in heaven will be waiting for us after we reach 120 (though I, for one, am not in a rush to get there!). We are here to raise G-d’s honor – in this world!
“The currents of our time demand a far greater and loftier spiritual force…” (Rav Kook, Iggrot Ra’ayah #363). A Judaism devoid of longing for redemption is a “small and cramped eternity”, a Judaism shorn of all its grandeur and depth. It is a stunted, shallow form of religion that our children, who long for great ideals, are likely to reject.
At our Shabbat tables and at kiddush, from shul pulpits to podcasts, let us speak, without embarrassment, of geulah. And when we turn our hearts to G-d in prayer, let us beseech Him not only for health and wealth, or even our own spiritual growth, but for His glory to be revealed to all mankind. “And do not let Him rest, until He… makes Jerusalem the praise of all the earth.” (Yishayahu 62:7)
Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.