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Chayei Sara

V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim


One Rabbinic teaching states, “[Even] one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is superior to the entire life of the World to Come.” Yet elsewhere, it is implied that this world is only a preparation for the World to Come, which is the main thing.

The contradiction is explained by understanding an aspect of the spiritual function of Torah study and mitzvah observance, and the difference between the degree of G-dliness perceptible to us in this world and in the World to Come.

Reflection on these ideas during prayer helps one to achieve one’s spiritual goal.

THE COMMENT (Genesis 24:1) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sara, that “Abraham was elderly; advanced in days,” affords an opportunity for insight into how he used each day of his life to best advantage. By extension, we learn how we are to use our own days, and how they prepare us for the life of the World to Come, or “Heaven.”

It is taught (Mishna, Avos 4:17), “[Even] one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is superior to the entire life of the World to Come.” Yet this seems strange, for another teaching (see Iggeres HaKodesh 29 and the discourse entitled “Zachreinu L’chaim” in Sefer Hama’amarim 5701, page 153) states – referring to the teaching that in Heaven, the righteous bask with pleasure in the glow, or radiance, of the Divine Presence – that the function of repentance and good deeds is that spiritually, they are transformed into “garments” (perhaps one should envision environmental clothing like scuba gear or a spacesuit) which allow the soul to withstand the “radiance of the Divine Presence” with which it will be rewarded in the World to Come. Indeed, the Zohar states (I:224a; see also Torah Ohr 79b and Likkutei Sichos of the year 5730, Vayeira, footnote 9), commenting on the phrase “advanced in days” quoted above, “[I.e.,] in those [spiritual] supernal ‘days’ … woe to the person who is lacking in ‘days’ above [i.e., in the World to Come], for when he will need to clothe himself with those ‘days,’ the ‘day’ which he damaged [in life] will be missing from that garment.”

These statements seem to imply that the main thing is the World to Come, with this world serving only as preparation, as a place to obtain the necessary “gear,” so to speak, for life in Heaven. If so, what is the meaning of the teaching that even one moment engaged in repentance and good deeds in this world is superior to the entire life of the World to Come?

To understand the answer, we must first discuss what is meant by the “radiance of the Divine Presence” in which souls delight in Heaven; as well as what is meant by the teaching that repentance and good deeds in this world are transformed into “garments” that allow the soul to withstand that radiance.

There is, in fact, a fundamental difference in the degree of G-dly revelation between this world and the World to Come.

It should come as no surprise that G-dly revelation is manifest in the World to Come. As mentioned above, this revelation is referred to in Rabbinic literature as ziv haShechina, the “radiance, or glow, of the Divine Presence.” On the other hand,G-d’s presence is felt in this world too; indeed, it is the spiritual force which brings the universe into being and without which nothing could exist, as it says (Nechemia 9:6), “And You [O, G-d] animate them all.”

However, the G-dliness in this world is completely hidden. While it is true that one can see the effect of G-d’s presence, one cannot “see” theG-dliness itself at all.

On the level relevant for this discussion, the manner in which G-d animates the world may be compared to that in which the soul animates the body. All functions of the body are “powered,” as it were, by the soul: whether the hand moves, the eye sees, or the mouth speaks, the ability to do so is a result of the soul’s vitality, which permeates each organ and imbues it with its particular abilities. Clearly, however, the soul itself is not divisible into organs. The soul has no “eye component,” “hand component,” etc.; it is a purely spiritual entity to which one cannot rightly ascribe such powers as sight or speech. Perhaps one can compare this to a multi-functioned, battery-operated device – for example, a clock radio. Obviously, each part of such a device is constructed in a way that will facilitate its particular function: the radio must have speakers and a channel-tuning knob; while the clock needs a numeric display and a snooze button. But none of these things could possibly work by themselves. They need power; they need the battery. It is that whose energy flows into each part and enables each individual section to carry out the function for which it was constructed. Yet the battery itself cannot be said to have any of those functions.

What may be observed from the above is that, in using the clock radio, what one perceives as the functionality of the device is the effect of the battery, but not the battery’s own energy, its voltage. This itself is imperceptible. Obviously, in the battery example it is only “imperceptible” to the extent that we can’t perceive it without, for example, a voltmeter. But with respect to the soul and its pervading and animating the body, this is literally true: what we observe as the functioning of the body, while clear evidence of the effect of the soul, is not the soul itself at all, which is purely spiritual

This is why the Torah says (Isaiah 6:3), “The whole earth is filled with His glory,” which Onkelos, the classic Aramaic translator/commentator, renders “… the radiance of His glory.” The point is that what fills the earth cannot even be said to be G-d’s glory per se, but only a reflection thereof. G-d Himself is so supremely exalted above creation that all we created beings can perceive is a dimmed reflection of His glory – and nothing of Him Himself.

This is what the Talmud means by the expression (Megilla 31a), “In the [very] place that you find [G-d’s] greatness, there do you find His humility.” People think that G-d is great because He created this vast and majestic universe. That is a fundamental error. The “greatness” of G-d Himself is something which we puny mortals are utterly inadequate to comprehend. Certainly G-d is “great” – albeit in a way beyond our comprehension – but His greatness does not derive from having created the universe. This only seems like a big deal to us, but to G-d it is literally as nothing. Instead, when we praise G-d for having created the universe, even if we have in mind all the awesome splendor of creation, what we are really doing is praising G-d for condescending to “lower” Himself, as it were, to vest even some glimmer of His creative force into what, for Him, is utterly insignificant. It is not G-d’s greatness but the “humility” of G-d, the fact that He lowers Himself so for our sake (for we Jews are indeed significant, and in fact precious, in G-d’s eyes) that is brought out by contemplation of even the most impressive aspects of creation, and thus, “in the very place that you find His greatness” – whatever appears to you to be the greatest and most awesome thing about G-d – it expresses nothing more than His willingness to “lower” Himself to that level: “there do you find His humility.” G-d’s true “Self,” so to speak, is simply not revealed in this world.

By contrast, in the World to Come, the pleasure which the souls derive from “basking in the radiance of the Divine Presence” comes from actually being able to openly perceive (not G-d Himself, of course, but) the G-dliness itself that “radiates” from G-d and gives life to all (see Or HaTorah, Vayeitzei, vol. 4, 788a).

Now, in light of the above, we must understand a further point. How is it possible for the soul – a created being – to be able to perceive and comprehend the very essence of G-dliness, as we have just said occurs in Heaven? True, the soul is “a part of G-d above,” but that is more so with respect to the soul’s spiritual origin and source than with the soul as it inhabits the body, or even as it basks in the radiance of the Divine Presence. For example, Chassidic teachings speak of the connection between a son and his father, and in that context discuss the fact that the child’s physical origin was a drop of semen within the father, which in turn descended from the father’s brain. However, this does not mean to imply that the drop existed in that form within the father’s brain. Rather, the meaning is that (like everything else that goes on in the body), the production of the drop originated as a neurological impulse that descended, intangible, from the brain down the spinal cord and ultimately caused the formation of the physical, tangible drop. This drop (and the son who grew out of the process) may thus in a very real sense be considered to be a “part” of the very brain of the father, but certainly there is a big difference between that conceptually and as it is expressed in final form. Similarly, the Jewish soul is, truly, a “part” of G-d, but as the soul exists in its earthly form it is a far cry from its lofty spiritual origin. Thus, the question: how can a soul in that form, having descended all the way “down” and lived in this world, possibly be exposed, in Heaven, to openly revealedG-dliness and not be overwhelmed – let alone understand and enjoy what it sees?

We have a precedent for this, however, in the episode of Moshe (Moses) when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jews. Regarding this, we are told (Exodus 24:18), “And Moshe came into the cloud and went up to the mountain, and Moshe was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” How could Moshe, a man of flesh and blood, be with G-d for forty days and forty nights, absorbing the Torah’s teachings and having neither food nor drink? The answer is that he assumed such a spiritual character during that period that he was on the plane of the angels; even his physical body was nourished by spiritual sustenance, as it says (Psalms 78:25), “Man ate the bread of angels.” That was the function of the “cloud” in which Moshe was enveloped: it was the physical embodiment of a very high level of spirituality, and it descended and was transformed into the semi-tangible form of a cloud to serve as a sort of “spiritual interface” for Moshe. Wrapped in this cloud, Moshe the man was able to be nourished by the spiritual “food” of Torah, like a person looking at a pure, bright light through a curtain.

In a similar manner, Torah study and practical observance of mitzvos (“repentance and good deeds”) in this world enable a person to relate to the spiritual revelations of the World to Come. Mitzvos are the will of G-d: we put on tefillin because it is G-d’s will that we do so; we wear tzitzis or give charity for the same reason. Now, as explained elsewhere, G-d has no “body,” of course, but He created us in such a way that, through Torah-guided contemplation of our own makeup, we can come to understand something of Him. Specifically, we can identify the “will” as the very highest aspect of a person: it transcends all other faculties, even that highest of faculties, “reason.” (A person does not need a logical reason to want something; it is simply his or her will.) When we say that mitzvos are the “will” of G-d, we mean that their spiritual source is the very highest aspect of G-dliness. Nevertheless, paradoxically, this lofty spirituality expresses itself in practical, physical form. The mitzvah of tefillin requires physical cowhide strapped to our arm and head (in accordance with all the detailed, practical specifications found in Jewish law). Tzitzis are made from the wool of sheep, and so on with other mitzvos.

This paradox represents the fact that mitzvos, like Moshe’s cloud, enable us Jews, although merely created beings, to nevertheless link up with G-d Himself. The “will” of G-d – source of the mitzvos – is one and the same with G-d Himself, and is inexpressibly superior to the mere revelation ofG-dliness referred to as “ziv haShechina,” the (mere) radiance, or glow, of the Divine Presence. By expressing the will of G-d in observing mitzvos – particularly those involving physical action – we ourselves unite with G-d with a wonderful and powerful unity, the like of which has no parallel in any earthly phenomenon, and much more so, for that matter, than can be experienced in Heaven. In the World to Come, the souls are only exposed to the radiance of the Divine Presence, whereas in this world, we have the priceless opportunity to perform actual mitzvos and thereby be bound up and united withG-d’s very Self.

This, then, is the reason why our sages teach that “[even] one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is superior to the entire life of the World to Come.” Nevertheless, in a different sense, the World to Come has an advantage over this world: here, we cannot perceive the G-dliness we are uniting with through Torah and mitzvos; that would be impossible to withstand. In the World to Come, however, the radiance of G-dliness is literally perceptible, which causes the great delight of the souls who experience it. And it is precisely the fact that those souls have previously spent time in this world, engaged in observance of Torah and mitzvos, that enables them, although created entities, to withstand that revelation. Like the cloud which enveloped Moshe, the mitzvos form a sort of wrap, or garment, about the soul which allows it to “survive” direct exposure to G-dliness.

Now, in another vein, it is taught that the love and fear of G-d which motivated a person while performing mitzvos are like “wings” that serve to elevate and carry heavenward the main thing, which is the mitzvos themselves. We can understand this in light of what we have said above, namely, that mitzvos literally unite us with G-d Himself. For, as discussed above, the verse, “The whole earth is filled with His glory” implies that only the “glory” of G-d, but notG-d Himself, is enclothed within this world. However, it is equally true that, as another verse (Jeremiah 23:24) puts it, “I [G-d’s very Self, expressed as “I”] fill the heavens and the earth.” Which is it: does only G-d’s glory fill the earth, or does G-d Himself fill both earth and heaven?

The answer is that both are true. On the one hand, there is certainly no place in heaven or earth that is devoid of G-d Himself. In fact, next to Him, nothing else (even his “radiance”) exists, similar to how one can only speak of “sunlight” when it is shining on earth, but at its source – in the globe of the sun – there is but one thing: the sun, not “sunlight.” However, as explained above, this immanence of G-d within creation (and the resulting nullity of creation to G-d Himself) is not within the ability of created beings to perceive. On the other hand, we can perceive, at least, some reflection of the “glory” of G-d, and this is what is meant by saying that this whole world is filled with that reflection.

A person has the ability to transcend the limitations and constraints of this world, in the sense that, since we at least know that G-d’s very Essence is everywhere (although we can’t perceive it), we can yearn and long to unite with that Essence and not be mired in the limited perception of G-dliness otherwise available. This longing for G-d is developed during prayer. When a person reflects on the meaning of his or her prayers during the sections known as p’sukei d’zimra and the preliminary blessings to the Shema, which dwell on these themes, he or she arouses within his or her soul an innate love and longing to unite with none other than G-d Himself, Who he or she knows is tantalizingly “close,” but unattainable. This leads one to the apex of prayer, the acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty in the Shema prayer itself and the continuation, “and you should love G-d your G-d.” The Hebrew names for G-d in that verse are “and you should love Havaye, your Elokim.” The Divine name Havaye represents G-d’s very Self; the name Elokim, G-d as He reveals Himself within this world. The meaning is that one should attain a degree of love for G-d in which he or she yearns that Havaye should be his or her Elokim: that even within this world (Elokim) the G-dliness one unites with is none other than G-d’s very Self (Havaye).

This love and longing motivate one to engage in Torah study, as it says further in the Shema, “and you should speak of them [Torah subjects].” For, as explained above, mitzvah observance and Torah study actually enable one to realize his or her longing, that is, to literally unite with G-d’s very Self even in this world.

And let not a person make the mistake of supposing that they are unworthy or incapable of achieving the above because they have sinned. With respect to that, it says, toward the conclusion of the Shema, “I am G-d your G-d (Havaye, your Elokim) who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “Egypt,” Mitzrayim, is etymologically related to the word meitzar, for “limitations” and “boundaries.” The verse may thus be interpreted as a reminder that, not only on a national scale did G-d free the Jewish people from all limits and constraints on our ability to worship G-d, but on a personal level too, it is Havaye – G-d Himself – that distinguishes between the good and the bad within a person, and “frees” the good impulses within him or her to break free of the bad and reach out to Him. We can take courage in the struggle to improve in the knowledge that G-d is “on our side”; even one who is not yet perfect (as though anyone is!) can yearn that Havaye should be his or her Elokim.

This yearning, this love and fear of G-d, is thus the impetus for one’s Torah study and mitzvah observance throughout the day: they serve as the “wings” which lift up that service of G-d to the point they are performed not for any ulterior motive or superficial reason, but simply in order to fulfill the will of G-d. And this in turn unites the person with G-d Himself.

It develops from all the above that Torah study and mitzvah observance in this world are necessary prerequisites for the soul to achieve its potential for spiritual enlightenment in the World to Come. This is what is meant by the statement that the “days” of this life form “garments” which the soul will need in Heaven: each and every day, a person has a certain amount of spiritual progress to make, so that over the course of his or her life, he or she will have fully “clothed” the soul. And that is the allusion of the statement that Abraham was “advanced in days”: he fully utilized his days to maximum spiritual potential, creating a complete garment for his soul.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin