I was speaking recently with Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, from Project 613 of Chicago, for advice about our building campaign for Yeshiva Ner Boruch—PTI. He shared an insight he heard from Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman when they last met. He asked Rabbi Wachsman, “What drives sports players and sports fans? What’s the big deal if they win or lose?” Rabbi Wachsman replied, “It’s the Hall of Fame that drives them. People want to be champions and feel connected to champions. They want to be the greatest of all time. ‘Winning’ creates’ a legacy for a person and through that legacy he can live forever. This is evidenced by the Hebrew word for victory, nitzachon. The root of the word nitzachon is “netzach”—which means ‘forever.’”
This universal drive to succeed was ingrained by Hashem into Adam and Chava, who were originally intended to live forever. But after they sinned by eating from the eitz hadas (Tree of Knowledge), Hashem punished mankind with a limited lifespan. In truth, our neshama lives forever, and we hope to merit techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead) where our body will once again be reunited with our soul.
Many people love the idea of leaving a legacy, being admired for their accomplishments or even just having their name on a plaque on a wall. But that’s something finite. Genuine satisfaction comes from adding true value and meaning to their time on this earth. For example, when you present someone with an opportunity to help erect a building devoted to the study and practice of Torah and he seizes that opportunity by providing financial and other support, that action lasts forever. Torah itself is infinite and eternal, and by partnering to build and support a makom Torah, one gets infinite and eternal reward.
We get a clear glimpse of that eternal reward from a pasuk in Parshas Acharei Mos, “You shall observe My decrees and My laws that man shall carry out and by which he shall live.” Rashi says the reward for performance of a mitzvah will be enjoyed in the next world/eternally, while things in this world are temporal and can only be enjoyed while one is alive. The Torah is telling us clearly that the reward one receives for the performance of mitzvos lasts now and forever.
Yet, there is a troubling question on this explanation, as the Gemara expounds from the words, “v’chai bahem”—by which he shall live (i.e., the mitzvos). This indicates that one must perform the mitzvos in a manner that does the maximum to preserve his own physical life. Indeed, if one’s life is in danger and the only way to save his life is by violating a mitzvah, he must violate the mitzvah to save his life (except for the three cardinal sins.) So…do we have a contradiction? Are the words “you shall live by them” referring to preserving our physical life now, or do they refer to eternal life received as a reward for the performance of mitzvos?
Rav Shimon Schwab offers a fundamental concept to answer this question, with an encounter he had with the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Schwab frequently spoke of the one Shabbos he spent as a guest of the Chofetz Chaim when he was 20 years old. The Chofetz Chaim asked Rav Schwab, “What do you have in mind when you say in the Shacharis davening (at the end of Uva Letzion, right before Aleinu) “vechayei olam nata besocheinu”—and He implanted eternal life inside us?
Rav Schwab did not know what to respond so he remained silent. Then the Chofetz Chaim asked, “Where are you going to be in 500 years?” Without waiting for Rav Schwab to reply, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “With Hashem.” And continued, “Where are you going to be in 5,000 years?” And answered again, “With Hashem. And in five million years? With Hashem. You are always with Hashem.”
That’s what the pasuk means by “eternal life implanted inside of you.” We are eternally connected to Hashem, therefore every mitzvah we perform while we are alive strengthens that connection and creates a stronger bond that will remain with us…forever!
Every day of our lives we are building our eternity. The way we live here in this world determines how we live in the next world. The only difference is we will be without a body. Therefore, there is no contradiction in the meaning of “by which you shall live,’’ as the actions we perform now create our future forever. That is what it means by “He planted eternity inside us.”
Each mitzvah we perform creates an eternal bond between us and Hashem, on the basis of which we “live forever.” Our actions in this regard have eternal value—more than a legacy and more than any plaque or award. Torah and mitzvos develop and benefit our souls and make possible our eternal existence.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate Rosh Yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.