MATOS-MASSEI - THE VALUE OF LIFE
“And Bilaam the son of Beor they killed with the sword. ” It would seem that the death of Bilaam Harasha was a punishment for his efforts to harm Klal Yisroel in the desert. The Gemara, however, cites a far earlier crime that he committed as the reason for his untimely death. “Three were in that aitsa [of how Pharaoh should treat the Jewish people], Bilaam, Iyov and Yisro: Bilaam advised [to harm them] and was killed; Iyov was silent and was judged with yissurim; Yisro escaped and was zocheh that his descendants should sit in the lishkas hagazis. ” Bilaam was punished with death at the hands of Klal Yisroel because of his evil advice to Pharaoh many years earlier. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l points out that this Gemara poses a great difficulty: It is clear that Bilaam deserved a far greater punishment than Iyov, because Iyov didn’t commit an active crime, rather he remained silent. Yet, it would seem that Iyov’s onesh was far greater than that of Bilaam. Whilst Bilaam suffered a quick death, Iyov had to endure suffering that no other man has ever experienced. How can this be understood?
Rav Shmuelevitz answers that life itself is the greatest gift possible and that any pain, no matter how bad, is infinitely greater than death. Consequently, Bilaam’s onesh was far more severe than Iyov’s - Iyov still had the gift of life, Bilaam lost it forever. Rav Leib Chasman zt”l gives an excellent mashal to help understand this concept; imagine a man wins a huge prize on the lottery, and at that every moment, one of his jugs breaks. Would this minor inconvenience bother him at all at this time of great joy?! The happiness that he experiences due to the lottery prize nullifies any feelings of pain that come in everyday life. So too, a person should have the same attitude in life - his joy at the mere fact of his existence should be so great that it should render any difficulties as meaningless, even sufferings as great as those that Iyov endured. For they are nothing in comparison with the wonderful gift of life .
Why is the gift of life so precious? The Mishna in Pirkei Avos can help answer this question: “One moment of repentance and good deeds in Olam Hazeh is greater than all of Chayei Olam Haba, and one moment of peripheral pleasure in Olam Habah is greater than all of Chayei Olam Hazeh. ” This Mishna seems to contradict itself - it begins by stating that Olam Hazeh is incomparably greater than Olam Haba and ends by saying the opposite! The commentaries explain that the two parts of the Mishna are focussing on different aspects. The second part of the Mishna is comparing the pleasure that one can attain in the two ‘worlds‘. In that sense, Olam Haba is infinitely greater than Olam Hazeh - there is no earthly pleasure that can begin to compare with one moment of pleasure in Olam Haba. The pleasure there is that of connecting to Hashem, the Source of all creation - all other pleasures are meaningless and transitory in comparison. However, the first part of the Mishna is focussing on the ability to create more of a connection to Hashem. In that aspect Olam Hazeh is infinitely greater because it is the place of free will in which we have the ability to choose to become closer to Hashem by performing mitzvos. In Olam Haba there is no more opportunity to increase the connection to Him. We can now understand why life is so precious - each moment is a priceless opportunity to attain more closeness to Hashem, the ultimate pleasure that will accompany us for eternity in Olam Haba. The Gra expressed the value of Olam Hazeh on his deathbed. He held his Tsitsit and cried, saying, “how precious is Olam Hazeh that for a few prutot it is possible to gain merit for the mitzvo of Tsitsit and to see the ‘pney hashechina’, whereas in Olam Haba it is impossible to gain anything.”
This idea is also demonstrated by the Gemara in Avoda Zara . The Gemara tells of Elazar Ben Durdaya, an inveterate sinner. On one occasion, when he was about to commit a terrible sin, he was told that even if he repented his teshuva will never be accepted. This ‘sentence’ effected him so deeply that he did repent and he died in a state of perfect teshuva. As his soul left him, a Bas Kol came out and said that Rabbi Elazar Ben Durdaya is ready to go into Olam Haba. The Gemara then says that when Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi heard this maaseh he cried out, “there are those that earn Olam Haba in many years and there are those that earn it in one moment.” The commentaries wonder why Rebbi was so upset by this maaseh - he, a person who had struggled for many years in Avodas Hashem, was surely destined for a far greater portion in Olam Haba than someone who earned Olam Haba for one moment of inspired teshuva!? Rav Noach Weinberg Shlita answers in the name of his father, that Rebbi was crying because he saw the power of one moment in Olam Hazeh; in one moment a person can earn infinite bliss, therefore he was crying at any failure to utilise each moment in the best possible way. Each moment is an incredible opportunity at creating more Olam Haba.
The Chofetz Chaim applies this concept to halacha . He brings the Sefer Hachinuch who writes that there are six mitzvos that are constantly incumbent upon man and that every second throughout a person’s life a person can fulfil them by merely thinking about them, and consequently there is no limit to the reward for performing these mitvzos. This can also help explain why Jewish law is so against ending a person’s life prematurely, even if he is unable to live a normal life. Rav Zev Leff Shlita points out that even a person in a coma may well be able to perform numerous mitzvos by his thought. He can fulfil the Mitzvos that only require thought and moreover, Chazal tell us that if a person has a desire to perform a mitzvo but is prevented from doing so, he nevertheless receives reward as if he did indeed fulfil the mitzvo. Therefore, every second more of life is a great opportunity to create more Olam Haba.
We have seen how every second of life is infinitely precious. Yet we often think that little can be achieved in a few minutes here or there. However, experience has proven differently. The Chasam Sofer was once asked how he became a Gadol, he answered that he became a Gadol in five minutes. He meant that by utilising every available moment he was able to learn so much more. Rav Moshe Feinstein once had a very large smile on his face - he explained that he had just completed Shas. This was not a novel achievement for him, he was known to have finished Shas dozens of times, but this siyum was different. It comprised of his learning in the gaps at Chasunas; by consistently learning small amounts he eventually learnt all of Shas this way. We too can use small amounts of time to attain surprisingly great achievements in learning. There are people who learn one Mishna a day, this seems a somewhat trivial amount, but after years of consistently doing this they have completed whole Sedarim of Mishnayos. Another important benefit of small sedarim is that one can use them to learn areas of Torah that are not normally given sufficient attention. One Talmid Chacham in Eretz Yisroel is well-known for his expertise in all areas of Torah, including Navi, Hashkafa, and Mussar, as well as his all encompassing grasp of Shas and poskim. When asked how he managed to learn such a wide array of subjects he explained that he had many small sedarim - by learning Maharal or Navi for ten minutes a day, he gradually attained a wide knowledge in them. Similarly, Rav Yisroel Reisman Shlita often emphasises that in order to know Navi, one need not devote hours each day to it. He attained his expertise in it by learning it for a few minutes each night. Nowadays there are many ways in which one can utilise small sedarim - there are books such as ’A Lesson a Day’ and ’Praying with Fire’ which enable people to learn small but significant amounts of highly important subjects each day.
We have seen how precious the gift of life is and the great value of every moment of life. Life is full of challenges and there are times when a person can feel despondent - but if he remembers that life itself is cause for joy then he can overcome any negative feelings: When the Alter of Novardok first started to build yeshivas, he was unsuccessful. He built yeshivas and they collapsed, he organised groups and they disintegrated. In addition, he and his approach were attacked by opponents. At that time he came to Kelm and his Rebbi, The Alter of Kelm noticed he looked sad and understood why. That Motsei Shabbos when a group had gathered to hear his shmuese, he stood at the podium and remained silent for a very, very long time. Then he banged his hand on the shtender and thundered, “It is enough for a living being that he is alive.” Over and over he repeated his words until finally he told the group to doven Maariv. “That session” said the Alter of Novardok “dispelled my gloom and cleared my thoughts. ” The Alter of Kelm taught the Alter of Novardok a priceless lesson - as long as one is alive, there is nothing to complain about. May we all be zocheh to appreciate the gift of life and use it to its fullest.