by Rabbi Alexander
Our sages state as a general rule that unlike human rulers, who often consider themselves to be above the law, Hashem considers Himself bound by the same mitzvot that He commanded the Jewish people.
Our sages state as a general rule that unlike human rulers, who often consider themselves to be above the law, Hashem considers Himself bound by the same mitzvot that He commanded the Jewish people. Thus, for example, Hashem (so to speak) puts on tefillin, observes Shabbat, and so forth. So, when we read in this week's Torah portion that an employer is obligated to pay his workers on the day that their work is completed - "You shall give him his pay on the same day, and not let the sun set [without it being done]" (Deuteronomy 24:15) - we might expect that Hashem will do no less for us, His "employees" in making the world a fit place for His presence. Yet, in any number of places, the Torah stresses that the reward for our mitzvot is saved for "tomorrow" - the future world.
Before we can answer this question, we must first determine what the "World to Come" means in this connection. The Rambam (Maimonides) considers it to be the "world of souls," popularly called Gan Eden (Paradise), where one's soul goes after death. Most other authorities, particularly the Ramban (Nachmanides), contend that it is the future world of the Mashiach (Messiah), and that only then will the ultimate reward for mitzvot be handed out.
We can take the view, then, that since one's "term of employment" lasts an entire lifetime, Gd, like a human employer, is under no obligation to "pay" us until the "job" is complete - and every individual soul has its job to do and purpose to fulfill. So we can readily understand Maimonides' opinion: As soon as that job is done - when the person dies - the "payment" comes immediately. But why does Nachmanides insist that the "payment" is to be deferred until the Mashiach arrives?
To explain Nachmanides' approach, we must look at our mitzvot in the collective sense. We are not an unrelated group of people, each going about his or her own task, with one's efforts having no effect on the next person. Rather, we are a team, all working together to bring the coming of the Mashiach and the grand finale of history, and every individual mitzvah brings that moment closer. The reward for all of our mitzvot, then, has to be saved for that future time, when the job of "making a dwelling place for Gd in the lower realms" will be complete and Gd's presence will be revealed in this world.
Side by side with its statements about the rewards of the World to Come, though, the Torah does promise - in numerous places - that our observance of mitzvot will result in peace, prosperity, and all kinds of material blessings. Many of the commentaries explain that these are not meant as the real reward, but rather as G-d's "contribution" to helping us do our job. It is far easier to concentrate on Torah study and mitzvah observance when one's brain is not occupied with problems of basic survival and security. Taken from this perspective, we can see ourselves not only as Hashem's employees or contractors, but as His partners in creation.
This gains added significance as we approach the period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At a time like this, when we are re-accepting upon ourselves Gd's kingship and rededicating ourselves to our relationship with Him, what room is there for our petty requests for a good livelihood, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? But the fact is that, being physical creatures in a physical world, we need these things in order to do a proper job of taking that physical world and turning it into something spiritual. A crust of bread and a pitcher of water may be enough to keep body and soul together and enable one to do a mitzvah; but a steak will do better, and that extra energy can - and, by rights, must - be used to perform that same mitzvah with extra verve. As such, we do have the right on the holiest days of the year to stand up and ask that Hashem fulfill the terms of His "partnership" with us, so that we can in turn fulfill ours.
This essay was adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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