This World and the World-to-Come

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

THE VILNA GAON

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

Shiur #12: THIS WORLD AND THE WORLD-TO-COME

 

 

I. THE GRA’S EXEGETICAL METHOD

 

            In the previous shiur, we examined the Gra's dichotomous world view, as it emerges from several passages in his commentaries to Scripture. Before we continue to examine this issue, I wish to focus on some of the citations that we have already seen in order to better understand the Gra's exegetical method. Earlier we brought partial citations of the Gra's words; here we shall try to broaden the canvas.

 

            First of all, an examination of the passages raises the question regarding the relationship between the plain sense of the text and the midrashic understanding. For example, one passage that we already discussed is taken from the book of Mishlei: the seductions of the harlot – a passage that is understood by the Gra as connected to man's struggle with his evil yetzer. Is this interpretation the plain meaning of the text? Surely the verses speak of a harlot! It should, however, be noted that sometimes the metaphoric meaning is so obvious and necessary that many of us would say that it is the plain meaning of the text. For example, when the Torah commands, "You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind" (Vayikra 19:14), the Halakha understands that one is forbidden to give inappropriate counsel to one who is "blind" – i.e., ignorant – about a certain matter. It would seem from the Halakha that this understanding is the plain meaning of the text, for many maintain – and this seems to be the majority opinion – that the verse does not prohibit the literal situation, i.e., to place an actual stumbling block before the blind.[1] So too in connection with the harlot in the book of Mishlei, it should be remembered that the prophets in general used harlotry as a metaphor for the sins of Israel and their betrayal of God. In our case in the book of Mishlei, the Gra is not the only commentator who takes this approach. The Ralbag also argues that the verses refer to man's inclination to follow "the craving soul."

 

            The uniqueness of the Gra's interpretation lies in what he says about the words of the harlot, "This day have I paid my vows." What do these words mean? According to most commentators, she means to say that she has an abundance of meat, and she asks the object of her seductions to come and eat with her. However, the meat of peace-offerings would not be necessary for this purpose. It is of course possible that the role of the peace-offerings is only to add color to illustrate the matter. But in the wake of the moral of the story, the Gra understands that the sacrificial meat is part of the seduction, and thus we are presented with one of the devices of the yetzer: the way it disguises itself in a mitzva. The Gra explains why the mitzva is so great from a halakhic perspective. For even on Shabbat, when we are commanded to eat and to delight ourselves, a person can fulfill his obligation to eat with some insignificant food – "a pie of fish-hash" – whereas with respect to a peace-offering, the entire offering must be eaten with joy, and if one does not fulfill the mitzva in perfect manner, he transgresses the prohibition of leaving part of a sacrifice past the time it is permitted to be eaten. This exegetical novelty, that inserts a halakhic perspective into a biblical passage of a moralistic character, is typical of the Gaon of Vilna.

 

            In contrast, we would certainly not accept the Gra's moral in the book of Yona – the story of the soul's flight from its spiritual destiny – as the plain sense of the text. But even when the Gra sails off to the zones of allusion and metaphor, he takes with him his characteristic sensitivity that is so uniquely different from that which is commonly found in the world of exegesis. For when a darshan proposes an explanation based on metaphor, he might rely on some superficial common denominator between the metaphor and what it stands for, with his creative imagination making the connection between them. The Gra, on the other hand, as opposed to the typical exegete/darshan, does not base his interpretation merely on creativity, a fertile imagination, or even on reasonableness. But rather he demonstrates for us that the connections that he builds are anchored in the sources.

 

            For example, Yona's flight "from before God" symbolizes, as stated, the soul's flight into the bosom of this worldly pleasures, and its distancing itself from its original position in the spiritual world, where it stood "before God," prior to its descent into the material world. The designation "before God" as referring to the prior existence of the soul before it is born in a person's body, does not present any linguistic or exegetical difficulty, and it is quite reasonable. But nevertheless the Gra takes pains to clarify that he does not present this understanding of Scripture "on his own," but rather he has a source in the Zohar. Indeed, this idea is found in the Zohar to Parashat Vayechi, in connection with Eliyahu's words to Achav: "As the Lord lives, before whom I stand" (I Melakhim 17:1):

 

Yet come and see: All the souls which have existed since the Creation of the world, all stand before the Holy One, blessed be He, before descending into the world…

When the soul is ready to descend into the world with the very shape it is about to have in this world, it stands before the Holy One, blessed be He, who adjures it to observe the precepts of the Torah and never transgress them.

Whence do we know that the souls stand before Him? From the verse: "As the Lord, God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand" (I Melakhim 17:1), stood assuredly before being created….

 

            In similar fashion, when the Gra likens the troubles in this world to the waves of the sea, one would say that his words need no foundation, as everyone would agree that the metaphor is appropriate. Nevertheless, the Gra adduces Scriptural proofs that the waves of the sea can be assigned this sense. His first proof-text is Tehilim 42:8: "All Your waves and Your billows are gone over me." It is clear that the Psalmist is not referring to actual waves, for the entire chapter relates to various troubles – persecutions, abuse of enemies, distance from the house of God – and it is clear that the waves and billows are used here in the metaphoric sense. The Gra brings another verse to support his understanding, from the prayer of Yona himself: "The waters compassed me about, to the point of death (lit., 'to the soul')" (Yona 2:6). Here there was room to understand that we are dealing with actual water, for Yona was in fact encompassed by water; but if so, what is meant by "to the soul"? The Gra apparently understands that the reference is to some trouble that touches the depths of a person's soul.[2]

 

            Let us bring an example from another detail in the book of Yona. The soul (Yona) flees to Tarshish to enjoy the pleasures of this world. The real Tarshish is a famous port, but the Gaon understood that its being chosen to symbolize the attraction of temporal seductions is also anchored in its concrete existence, as is explained in the book of Yechezkel (27:12):

 

Tarshish was your merchant by reason of the multitude of all kind of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded for your wares.

 

            The Gra's interpretation of "in the wilderness in the desert" at the beginning of the book of Devarim, which we brought in the previous shiur, illustrates this principle. He proves that these words were already given symbolic meaning by Yirmiyahu, who uses them to describe the metaphoric fate of "the man who trusts in man." The Vilna Gaon applies the metaphor to Moshe's rebuke, as a practical lesson that promotes separation from this worldly pleasures.

 

            In summary, the same principle that rules the Gra's Halakhic teachings – anchoring everything in some source – also leaves its mark on his Biblical exegesis.

 

II. WHICH WORLD IS PREFERABLE?

 

            Let us now go back to the moral approach to life that emerged from the passages that we studied, an approach that sees man as placed in a split reality, divided between a world of spirit and a fleeting material world. During his lifetime a person must preserve to the extent possible his connection to the timeless dimension, and set before his eyes "the end," i.e., death. According to the Gra's understanding of the verse: "Who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they can find a grave," death is portrayed as a gate to an elevated and meaningful reality, which is beyond man's reach as long as he is trapped in his body.

 

            This outlook is built on two assumptions: 1) a dichotomous division of reality; 2) a preference given to connection to the heavenly over the present world. But despite what we have seen, there is room to challenge the absoluteness of this approach in the Gra's teachings, especially with respect to the second principle. The same Gaon who so rejoiced over the Torah that he attained, who was so deeply satisfied with his life work, as we saw in the past – is it possible to say that all of his yearnings were directed to the world-to-come?

 

            Indeed, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin relates in his introduction to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta that his master would say:

 

That even the wonderful and awesome things that the soul attains in sleep, in supernal pleasure in the heavenly academies, he did not regard as being so great, the main thing being what a person attains in this world through toil and labor when he chooses the good and opens himself to the words of the Torah. With this he pleases his Creator, blessed be His Name, this being all of man's duty to occupy himself in His Torah, blessed be His Name. But that which the soul attains in sleep… is merely reward, the Holy One, blessed be He, giving him a taste of the world-to-come in this world….

 

            From here it follows that from an ethical perspective, preference should be given to service in this world over the world-to-come, where one merely receives reward.

 

            Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his "Halakhic Man," cites the following tradition:

 

The story is told about the Gaon of Vilna, how just before his death he clutched the tzitzit of his garment, wept, and exclaimed: "How beautiful is this world – for one penny a person can acquire eternal life." (p. 30)

 

            We hear the same idea from Rav Chayyim of Volozhin. On the night of Selichot in the year 5572, Rav Chayyim delivered a sermon that has been published many times since. He reports that he heard –

 

many times from the holy mouth of our master, the Gaon, the pious, Eliyahu of Vilna, what is the importance of the world-to-come; it has no value whatsoever in contrast to one hour in this world of occupation in Torah and commandments, for in the world-to-come it is impossible to serve God…

 

            This citation provides additional support to the thesis that even the Gra preferred this world, where he felt very much "at home." But Rav Chayyim's attitude towards these words of his master was complex; what is more, from an educational-communal perspective, he viewed them as constituting a stumbling block and danger.

 

            Why did Rav Chayyim cite these words of the Gra? Because they reminded him of a saying that was common among the Jews of his time:

 

And owing to our many sins, the yetzer blinds the eyes of the masses, putting words into their mouths saying, that people say that even this world is a world, and it too should be considered…

 

            When Rav Chayyim plays the role of preacher, and tries to convince his audience that they should worry about their world-to-come, he is bothered by the fact that people set this world at the head of their concerns, and justify their worry about material success. In response to such sentiments, he continues:

 

In truth, the righteous of the world who serve God out of love with no other end but their desire to serve God – for them it is fitting to say this, as I have heard[3]… But we who are low in value, how can we imagine forsaking the life of the soul for the life of the body.

 

            This time, Rav Chayyim refrains from setting the Gra as an example who should be followed by the masses. Joy in the life of this world is fitting and appropriate for the truly righteous, says Rav Chayyim, because they really know what should guide man during his lifetime: Torah and the commandments. But Heaven forbid that we, the simple people, should adopt such an outlook, which is liable to bring us to cleave to material good.

 

            Reading this brings to mind a famous affair in the second Temple period. It is reported in Pirkei Avot that Antigonos of Sokho taught his disciples "to serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward," that is to say, to see God's service as the ultimate objective, and not to give any consideration whatsoever to the reward to be received in the world-to-come. The paradox here is that it is precisely a very righteous person who recommends that we ignore death. Antigonos advises that we should forget what is recommended elsewhere (even in Pirkei Avot) that man will in the end have to give a reckoning for his actions, and that we should live wholly "in the present." These words did not make sense to two disciples who heard his teachings, Tzaddok and Boethus, certainly not in the way that Antigonos meant them. These disciples left the proper path, after concluding from Anitgonos's words that one should not live "for the sake of" the world-to-come, which is nothing but false hope; and accordingly they invested their efforts in pursuing the pleasures of this world. As a result, Antigonos was subjected to strong criticism on the part of the Sages. He had mistakenly set a high religious standard before people for whom it was inappropriate, and he was insufficiently sensitive to the dangers that his words were liable to stir up.

 

            It would appear that Rav Chayyim wished to avoid a similar mistake. Only a person at the level of the Gra could "ignore" the world-to-come. But ordinary people who set their primary interests in this world endanger their eternal souls.

 

            Here, however, we must ask: What is the position of the Gra himself on this issue? For in the end, his words seem to be contradictory. We have already noted that in many places he advises that a person should always keep in mind the vision of death, and he should know that this is his destiny as a human being. In other places, however, we hear that the Gaon himself was happy with his achievements, and he emphasizes that it is only the reality of this world that made them possible, for this is the only place where the service of God is possible. How can these contradictory tendencies be reconciled? One way to resolve the contradiction emerges from the words of Rav Chayyim cited above. It might be possible to understand that the Gra himself valued life on earth more than anything else, because, as stated, only here can one serve God. But the community at large cannot understand this idea, and the attempt to set it as the ideal poses a danger. Accordingly – for mass consumption – the Gra acted in the manner of his disciple: He adopts a different approach, he demands the same constant awareness of "over against Suf," and he preaches that one should yearn for the wonderful reward in the world of the spirit that awaits anyone who cleaves to the Torah in our lowly world.

 

            The truth, however, is that it is exceedingly difficult to be convinced that this indeed is the Gra's position. His statements about the greatness of the world-to-come are very impressive, and the connection of the Gra himself to that world – the ascents of his soul and his conversations with the heavenly academy – bear such intensity that it is difficult to dismiss it all as an educational tactic aimed at the low-leveled. It would seem that some other point underlies the Gra's position, and it is reasonable to assume that this point will also shine new light on the words of Rav Chayyim of Volozhin.

 

III. “YOU DESIRE PRAISE”

 

            The great esteem for the spirituality of the world-to-come, as recorded by the Gra's son in the name of his father in his commentary to the book of Iyyov, is a necessary stage, without which a person cannot possibly reach a proper assessment of the Torah and the mitzvot that are fulfilled in this world. Why? Because it is impossible to assert that the mitzvot that are sold in this world "for pennies" are the main thing, without being entirely clear about what the less-important remainder is. The credibility of the statement is conditioned on the paradox that it embodies. The seriousness with which it can be said that seventy years of Divine service are more important than an eternal life of enjoying the splendor of the Shekhina – depends upon our recognizing the existential attraction of that eternity, of the liberation from the chains of matter, of the redemption from the prison of the body. Only after we reach this recognition, then when we stubbornly turn our heads and say: "Despite it all, the Torah and the commandments in this world are greater" – is there substance to our words. Only then are we credible.

 

And on the other hand, someone who doesn't instinctively see that the superiority of the heavenly world is like the superiority of light to darkness, and who owing to this blindness asserts that "what is most important is life in this world," distorts reality and goes off the path as did Tzadok and Boethus. His words stem from the fact that this world is the only world that he knows. His words are superficial, even cynical, and lead to hedonism.

 

A poetic expression of this idea is found in a profound work that is included in the Yom Kippur prayer according to the Ashkenazi rite. It speaks of the praise of God sounded by the ministering angels and by man. In stanza after stanza, the paytan presents the comparison and the contrast between the two:

 

You who are revered by the faithful and mighty angels,

Formed of ice and of flashing light, for Your awe is upon them,

Yet You desire praise from dust-made men dwelling on earth,

Who fall short and are poor in good deeds – and that is Your fame.

 

            God's eyes are lifted up in expectation, as it were, to the praise of flesh and blood, and for its sake He ignores the bands of His mighty angels. But the incomprehensible greatness of the deeds of man is portrayed against the background of heavenly worlds that look out upon human actions, perhaps with hope, perhaps with jealousy. Without recognizing the awesome stature of those "formed of ice", it would be impossible to properly understand the impact of the proclamation that it is precisely the praise of those "formed of matter" – which is "Your fame"!

 

            Accordingly, when the Gra expresses his deep attachment to life on earth and to what may be achieved through it, his excitement is based on all of his teachings about the supernal spiritual reality, that looks down upon us from above, and which man enters when his soul parts from his body. When his disciple, Rav Chayyim, warns his listeners against clinging to their earthly lives, he does this because the spirit of rationality is gaining in strength and modernity is at the door. The community at large is beginning to distance itself from the traditional consciousness of "God in heaven and you on earth," and when someone expresses his belief "that this world is also a world," he speaks about the material world in its literal sense, a world of day to day dealings, which does not evoke the jealousy of the angels or the esteem of the holy ones above. The detachment from the world of celestial spirituality deprives this world of its supremacy, which only the paradox can bestow upon it.

 

            If, based upon what has been said here, it seems to you that as the zeitgeist of modernity progressed, the less possible the Gra's original outlook became for many, it would be difficult for me to disagree. That which Rav Chayyim tried to keep from his audience, turned out to be the only alternative, the sole path that they could take. The more that the Enlightenment distanced the world of emanation from the thinking and the religious experience of the average Jew, they were left with no other choice but to cling to the visible world, and to struggle within it to maintain Torah study and the observance of the mitzvot in their concrete sense. It was the Gra who opened this door. It was he who raised the banner of the earthly service of God. But the conceptual-spiritual system that supported the Gra's outlook and that made possible the beginning of this change, was forced to shift into a defensive mode, and even to retreat in great measure from its positions because of the changes in the spirit of the time.

 

            In the next shiur, we shall examine this process more closely.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] This is certainly forbidden by Torah law for various reasons, but this is not what the Torah had in mind when it commanded: "You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind."

[2] It should be noted that many commentators assume that the reference is to actual water that reach "to the soul" – that is to say, to the point of death, for Yona was in danger of drowning. It should also be noted that the first verse, "All Your waves and Your billows are gone over me," is found not only in Tehilim, but also in Yona's prayer. But it is likely that the Gra was referring to the verse in Tehilim, as he was interested in adducing proof for his metaphoric understanding.

[3] Here appears the citation brought above in the name of the Gra.