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Wednesday
Sep172014

ULTIMATE LIFE AND GOODNESS 

In this, the last parsha we will read before reaching the New Year, 5775, Moses exhorts the Jewish people: “See, I have set before you this day, life and good, and death and evil.”

AN END OF YEAR MESSAGE

The Hebrew text suggests a question here that deserves our consideration. The word es is repeated with each of these four key words. In line with Rashi’s commentary on an earlier verse, the word es, which is usually left untranslated in English, actually means “with.” For example, the very first verse of the Torah states, “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.” The original text appends the word es to both heaven and earth. This prompted Rashi to explain that the Torah actually states “In the beginning G-d created subsidiary creations with the earth and all the hosts of the heaven with the heaven.”

In light of the interpretation of es as “with,” we must try to understand the significance of the Torah’s use of that word in conjunction with “life” “good” “death” and “evil.” The Torah is not just referring to “life, good, death and evil” in their own right but also to their ancillary components. What does this mean and what are they? And why was Moses so emphatic that we see these secondary characteristics?

To better understand these auxiliary aspects and how they apply to us, we must first seek a fuller understanding of the original concepts of life, good, death and evil.

THE WONDERS OF LIFE

We live in a paradoxical age. We stand on the cusp of the Messianic Age, which will usher in a new dimension of and appreciation for life. At the same time, the very institution of life has never before been more simultaneously pronounced, challenged and undermined. While medical technology has made the most incredible advances in saving and prolonging life, society has experienced its utter devaluation.

One illustration of this phenomenon can be seen in the fact that, not so long ago, the greatest blessing one could give another was to live to 120. Today many people shudder at the prospect of living that long.

The reason for this phenomenon is our proximity to the Messianic Age, when life will reach its zenith—eternal life! One of the 13 Principles of Faith articulated by Maimonides, based on the Torah’s explicit statements, is belief in the Resurrection of the Dead after the onset of the Messianic Age. The prophet Isaiah declared of that moment: “He will swallow up death forever; and the L-rd G-d will wipe away tears from off all faces.”(25:8)

Since G-d, in His infinite kindness, does not want to shock or overwhelm us, He has given us a taste of these future changes. We are therefore witness to new technologies, such as cloning, the growing medical use of stem cells, etc., to demonstrate that the world is about to experience an explosion of life.

However, we are still in the period of Galus. The forces of darkness have yet to be vanquished and all positive phenomena are countered by a backlash of parallel negative energy. The explosion and proliferation of life that we now witness is therefore met with an irrational assault on life at both ends of the life-spectrum.

Many have pointed out the irony of a hospital spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the life of a preemie in one room, while destroying another preemie elsewhere in the same hospital.

Economic considerations and the slippery issue of “quality of life” have, among other reasons, dramatically changed the secular attitude toward the remaining value of human life at its end.

Judaism has always viewed life as possessing an intrinsic value. Each life is an expression of the Divine presence in our world. Who knows what value a life has, even one that appears unable to contribute to society? In Judaism, next to G-d, the Source of all life, life itself is the most sacred of institutions.

How can we dispel the notion that life itself is not valued when we lack financial resources and are living with an apparently degraded quality of life? Our Sages (Talmud, Taanis 8b) showed us the way when they declared: “The One who gives life, gives sustenance.”

We can now understand why the Torah adds the preposition es to the word for life. Not only does G-d give us life in its raw and unembellished state, G-d also gives us all the appurtenances to life.

ETERNAL LIFE VERSUS TEMPORAL LIFE

We can understand the difference between life and the accessories to life on another level. True life is eternal life. When G-d created Adam and Eve He intended them to live forever. It was only after they partook of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge that death entered into the world. Thus, life in its original state is eternal life. However, even the lesser temporal life we experience today is inherently valuable. Thus the es or the temporal aspect of life is also a Divine gift to prepare us for the eternal life of the future. By introducing the enduring values of Torah, life today also enjoys the status of true life.

An illustration of this point can be found in the laws about saving lives on Shabbos. According to the Talmud, saving a life overrides the Shabbos restrictions even if the person in peril has only a few more hours to live. One may violate the Shabbos prohibitions even for the secondary aspects — the “es”—of life.

INTRINSIC AND RELATIVE GOOD

There is intrinsic good and there is relative good. Since the sin of Adam and Eve all good contains an element of evil. In the Messianic Age, however, the evil will be expelled and good will be restored to its original unadulterated state.

One might be tempted to discount the value of the necessarily adulterated good we do now. To dispel any notion that the good we can do today is not worthwhile, our Sages tell us, “one should always engage in doing good even if it is for ulterior motives.” The rationale for this is: “from within the ulterior motive one will eventually do it for the pure motive.”

Chassidic thought explains that this point of view is not just a concession to our weaknesses and baser instincts. It is also not tolerated because of the rationale that “the end (of doing it altruistically) justifies the means (doing good for selfish reasons).” Rather, even the compromised good of today is intrinsically worthwhile. As Chassidus emphasizes by using the word “within,” the ulterior motive cloaks a fundamentally positive motive. Deep down, the person is motivated by a pure and holy desire to do unmitigated good. It just takes time and effort to allow that inner purity and good to rise to the surface and dominate the shallow ulterior motives.

This now explains why the Torah adds the word es with respect to the term “good.” It is to disabuse the idea that true good is elusive. Even now we can latch on to the auxiliary level of good (“es”) because it carries the seeds of genuine good within it and is the catalyst to bring about the ultimate good of the future.

VIRTUAL DEATH

Death can also be understood as existing on two planes. To cite a few examples: The Talmud and Zohar both state that sleep is one-sixtieth of death. The heel is referred to as the “Angel of Death” of our body because of its very limited amount of life. According to the Zohar, when one has “fallen” from his spiritual level it is as though he had died. According to the Talmud, a poor person is considered to be like a dead person. The simple understanding of this radical statement is to impress upon us the urgency in helping the poor; it is as if we brought him back to life. These are all ancillary or virtual forms of death.

To dispel the notion that the comparison of all of the above to death is sheer hyperbole, the Torah adds the preposition es, strongly suggesting that even the “virtual” forms of death derive from the same source.

Thus, when we awaken every morning and recite the Modeh Ani in which we thank G-d for bringing us back to life, we are reminded of the Resurrection of the Dead. However, it is not just a remote reminder. This daily revival carries the seeds of, introduces us to and prepares us for, that ultimate revival.

Similarly, when we help a “virtually dead” destitute person, we should not dismiss the comparison to bringing someone back from the dead. By adding the word es to the word death, the Torah instructs us that when we help the destitute it is tantamount to actually bringing them back to life.

EVIL AND ITS HANDLES

Our Sages declared in Ethics of the Fathers: “Reflect on three things and you will not come to the handles of sin.” It does not say “and you will not sin” but “you will not come to the handles of sin.” What is the difference?

The Rebbe explains that the desire for sin can be preceded by the desire and passion for permissible things. However, once a person is driven by desire he or she can easily slide down a slippery slope into forbidden territory.

The Rebbe then interprets the words “reflect on three things” as a reference to the third and final Redemption and the rebuilding of the third Beis HaMikdash. In that era, material delights will be as abundant (and therefore as meaningless) as the dust of the earth. Knowing this will distract us from the pursuit of and obsession with material pleasures—the “handles” of sin.

Thus when the Torah attaches the word es to evil it intimates that we should not only avoid actual evil, but also anticipate our future Messianic Age mindset and desist from the preoccupation with material things that can facilitate a slide into sin.

As we stand on the threshold of a New Year and of the imminent Redemption we should focus our attention on cultivating life and goodness in all of their forms no matter how they may pale compared to the life and good of the future. Similarly, we must remove all forms of death and evil in preparation for the future, when only unmitigated life and goodness will endure.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet New Year; a year, too, of total Redemption.

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