I recently came across a fascinating article written by one of our great Sages of the 19th century – Rav Yisrael Salanter.
The article discusses the idea of reward and punishment. We know that there are two worlds – this world and the next – and that the primary arena for reward and punishment is the next world. However, says Rav Salanter – and it’s a complex, philosophical discussion that we don’t have time to go into right now – sometimes, the reward that a person receives in this world is deducted from his reward in the next world. In other words, we are due a certain amount of reward for the good deeds we have done, and, under certain circumstances, the more of it we receive here on earth, the less there is left over for us in the world to come.
The same goes for suffering. Sometimes the suffering that a person experiences in this world is an atonement for the world to come. Meaning: the sins that we do in this life (and as King Solomon says in Kohelet, “there is no righteous person on earth who only does good and never sins”) require atonement before we can enter the next world, which is a world of complete perfection. But sometimes the suffering that we experience in this world serves as a purification and offsets the atonement we need to effect in the next world.
The question is, when is it that the goodness that we experience in this world is deducted from our reward in the world to come, and when is it not? And when is the suffering we experience in this world an atonement for sins in the world to come and when is it not? Says Rav Yisrael Salanter, we can never really know. Even after weighing up all the philosophical aspects of the discussion, he explains, on a practical level it’s very hard, if not impossible, to determine.
So how do we protect ourselves? How do we ensure that we don’t use up all of our reward in this world so that we can preserve it for the next? And how do we ensure that whatever suffering we endure in this world can be used as an atonement for the next world? Says Rav Salanter, when we identity with Hashem and make it our mission to carry out his Will, then whatever we go through in this world is “on Him”. The reward we receive in this world is not deducted from our reward in the world to come, because when we dedicate our lives to doing G-d’s work – to performing His commandments – that reward He gives us is simply our expense account; G-d “pays” for our expenses when we busy ourselves with His business. Again, the same goes for suffering; by living a G-dly life in accordance with the mitzvot, any suffering we undergo is by definition for the sake of Heaven and offsets anything we “owe” Him in the next world.
On the other hand, if we are here for ourselves, then we are here on our own expense, and whatever goodness we receive in this world is goodness we have to pay for. And whatever suffering we experience in this world is suffering not connected to atonement and therefore not offset in the next world. Of course, this is only the general theory, and one can never be sure how these dynamics play out in practical terms. But one thing is certain – that the goodness and the suffering that we experience in this world are on G-d’s expense and not on our own if we are dedicated to Him, and fulfil His commandments.
There is a famous passage in the Talmud which causes a lot of consternation amongst the great Jewish philosophers, and has done for generations. It says: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One for the totally wicked, one for the totally righteous, and one for those in between. The totally righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, the totally wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and the in between are left in suspension.”
Our commentators point out the obvious problem – many righteous people seem to die during the year and many wicked people seem to survive the year, so how can we say that the righteous are written in the “Book of Life” and the wicked in the “Book of Death? There are many answers given, but the answer given by Rav Salanter draws on a novel understanding of what “life” and “death” mean in this context.
Firstly, he defines a righteous person not as someone who is completely faultless, but whose good deeds and mitzvot outweigh their bad deeds. On balance, such a person can be said to belong to Hashem and be here on G-d’s business. And if he is here on G-d’s business, he is entitled to life. Explains Rav Salanter, to be written in the “Book of Life” doesn’t necessarily mean the person is going to survive the year; what it means is that they are deserving of life because they are here on G-d’s business and, therefore, all of the blessings that G-d gives them to support their life – health, sustenance, financial means, etc. – are on G-d’s account, not theirs. Similarly, any suffering that person goes through is an atonement in the next world because it’s all on G-d’s account.
On the other hand, a wicked person whose sins outweighs his good deeds – such a person is written in the book of death. This does not necessarily mean he is going to die this year. What it means is that he has no real right to life. Of course, even a person who has done more harm than good in this world still has good deeds and mitzvot for which he needs to be rewarded. But since this person is not entitled to life, the fact that he is alive and enjoys the health, financial means, etc. that support his existence is an act of G-d’s graciousness and, therefore, eats into the reward due him in the next world. Similarly, the suffering that person endures in this world is not used as an atonement in the world to come.
This is the essential question of life – are we here on G-d’s business or are we here on our own business? Rav Yisrael Salanter explains it’s not just about the quantity of good deeds and commandments we perform, but also about whether we are here to further G-d’s work in this world. And what is G-d’s work? G-d wants us to build a world filled with goodness; in which the values of the Torah are given expression in the widest possible way in society; in which there is kindness, and faith in, and devotion to, Hashem. G-d wants us not just to live in the world but to build a world. A world of goodness and Torah. That’s why the Talmud refers to Torah scholars as the “builders” of the world.
Says Rav Yisrael Salanter when we are contributing to the building of the world, that’s when we are really here on G-d’s business. It’s not just getting through a certain number of commandments to make sure that our good deeds outweigh the bad. It’s more fundamental than that. It is about being G-d’s partner in the creation of the world and building all of the necessary G-dly infrastructure. And that means, on a practical level, getting involved in and supporting communal structures and educational institutions and welfare organisations that are there to support the work of G-d in the world. When we do so, we are here on His business, not on our own.
What we are talking about here is an entire world view. You may be wondering what’s this got to do with this week’s Torah portion, parshat Nasso. Nasso means “to carry”, and it continues the subject we began last week concerning the mitzvah of transporting the various parts of the Mishkan, G-ds “Sanctuary” in the desert. The Mishkan was a temporary, mobile structure that could be dismantled and then reassembled, accompanying the Jewish People during their forty years of wandering in the desert. The responsibilities of those who had to carry the different parts of the Mishkan are set out at the end of last week’s portion, and primarily at the beginning of this week’s portion.
There were three major families in the tribe of Levi who were given this responsibility. The family of Kehat (that Moshe and Aharon came from) were responsible for carrying all of the various utensils of the Mishkan, including the the Aron Kodesh, the Menorah, the Altar, etc.; the family of Gershon were responsible for carrying all of the fabrics and upholstery; and the family of Merari had the heaviest load to carry – the beams that were used in the re-assembling of the Mishkan every time the Jewish People set up camp.
This is why the the parsha is called Nasso, “to carry”. Interestingly “nasso” is also the root of another word which also appears in this week’s portion – nasi, which means a “prince” (and in modern Hebrew, a “president”). A nasi is a position of leadership; it is to be distinguished, to stand out. The message seems to be this: how is it that a person stands out, becomes distinguished, achieves greatness? Through carrying.
What we see from here is a key principle of Jewish philosophy. There are actually two paradigms from which you can view the human being. The one is this paradigm of carrying things, and the other is the paradigm of one who has nothing to carry. Conventional wisdom would view the human being with nothing to carry as the one who is truly free. We talk about people carrying baggage, about being weighed down by burdens. The more responsibilities a person carries on his shoulders the more that person is weighed down and held back in life. Surely, then, freedom is about releasing oneself from responsibility? And indeed, there is a popular stream of Western liberal philosophy that takes this very approach; that we should aspire to shake off our responsibilities, and remain free agents. After all, responsibilities are draining, they make life difficult and burdensome. And life shouldn’t be a burden.
Judaism, on the other hand, is the philosophy of carrying. It’s the philosophy of responsibility. The Sages in the Talmud talk about the Ol HaMitzvot, carrying “the yoke of the commandments”. Because however wonderful and uplifting the commandments are – they are the right thing to do, they align us with the Will of G-d, they make life meaningful – they are also a burden to carry. There are responsibilities that need to be carried out. The Talmud also mentions in Pirkei Avot the concept of Nossei olim chaveiro, “carrying the burden of your friend”. We carry the burden of the commandments, but we also help others carry their own burdens of life. That’s what chesed, loving-kindness, is about.
We see that we are put on this earth to carry. This is perhaps why there is such strong emphasis in this week’s portion on who carries the items of the Mishkan. And it is none other than the holy tribe of Levi tasked with this most sacred of responsibilities. Their carrying is symbolic of the idea of carrying in general which we are all tasked with in this life. And it’s when we carry our responsibilities and embrace them that we have the greatest blessing. From nasso, carrying, comes nasi – being uplifted, becoming distinguished, attaining greatness. And so while we carry, we ourselves are lifted up at the same time; we carry the burdens but our burdens also carry us. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that the more responsibility you carry, the more you are burdened and weighed down.
Judaism’s philosophy is the more that you carry, the more that you are uplifted, because G-d created human beings to do just this. When we live in accordance with the purpose for which we were created then we become elevated. On the other hand, when a person tries to shirk responsibility and the duties of life – fulfilling the commandments, helping other people, building families, contributing to the community – then that person becomes diminished. Indeed, when a person shirks those responsibilities, it’s not freeing. Rather, it creates an emptiness within the person. It’s only when we carry, that we enjoy that sense of upliftment and fulfilment which is the root of all blessing in the world.
Selfishness is a curse. And paradoxically, when we are here only for ourselves – when we try to run away from responsibility – we don’t even fulfil our most basic need. The need for meaning. When a person is pursuing their self-interest that is when they are least likely to achieve that self-interest. This irony must be there because G-d created the world to function in accordance with the principles of His morality that He revealed to us.
The root of all blessing is being able to look outwards towards others. This point is made in this week’s portion by one of our great commentators, the Kli Yakar. He notes the Torah’s juxtaposition of the laws of the nazir – a person who takes upon themselves a vow not to drink wine and not to cut their hair, which, the Talmud says, they would take on as an antidote to alcoholic excess and its associated problems – with the famous formula for the Priestly Blessings, with which the Kohanim bless us in shul every Yom Tov to this very day.
The Kli Yakar explains the reason for this juxtaposition. He says that wine only brings blessing to the person themself and not to others. Straight after the verses dealing with this phenomenon, it says, Ko Tevarchu, “Thus shall you bless”; meaning, if you want real blessing in the world, then don’t only take it for yourself – project it outwards, reach out to other people. The Priestly Blessings are about a connection to G-d, and a connection to other people; they are about moving beyond the self, transcending the narrow confines of our own natural selfishness to reach out to others and to The Other.
The Kli Yakar goes on to detail the various places in the Torah that demonstrate the destructive power of alcoholic excess – how, according to one opinion in the Talmud, the original tree that Adam and Eve illicitly ate from was the vine; how Noach, after he came out of the ark, got drunk and the problems that led to. He also mentions all of the problems of alcoholic excess on a practical level.
And we all know that alcohol can be enormously damaging – even in a shul or a celebratory context. Alcohol should be drunk in moderation, it should never be given to children, and we should avoid its excesses at all costs because it is such a destructive substance. But what the Kli Yakar is pointing out is that it’s not just the practical substance abuse which is so destructive, it’s the philosophy. Alcohol represents the philosophy of selfishness, of self-gratification that is entirely at odds with the philosophy of giving, of blessing.
Ko Tevarchu – you have to reach out, go beyond yourself, make sure that you are not living for yourself alone, but for G-d, for the greater good, to make a real difference in the world. And only when we are making a real difference in the world – when we are here on G-d’s business – do we lead a life of blessing. Because if we are here on G-d’s business then everything we experience in this life is on His dime; it doesn’t detract from our reward in the next world. And the suffering we go through is counted for an atonement for sins that we would normally have to atone for in the next world.
Let us all live a life of blessing; of joyfully carrying the responsibilities that G-d has given us, realising that this is the route to true fulfilment and tranquillity and inner peace.