Question: How do we know there is an olam haba – a world to come?
Answer: Our Sages made many references to the hereafter, some based on Scripture and some based on tradition. In Deuteronomy (7:11), the Torah states: “v’shamarta et ha’mitzvah v’et ha’chukim v’et ha’mishpatim asher Anochi m’ztavecha hayom la’asotom – You shall observe the commandment, and the decrees, and the ordinances that I command you today to perform them.” Rashi comments: “hayom la’asotom – today to perform them and tomorrow in the World to Come to reap their reward.”
This comment is based on the statement of R. Yehoshua b. Levi (Eruvin 22a): “What does ‘that I command you today to perform them’ mean? Today you are to perform them, but not tomorrow. Rather, today you are to perform them and tomorrow [in the next world] you are to reap the reward.”
Rashi (ad loc., s.v. “v’lo l’mochor la’asotom” ) states: “For after death – in the World to Come – if one performs a commandment, it does not help, for he who has labored on the eve of the Sabbath [i.e., made preparations in this world] will eat [i.e., enjoy the fruits of those preparations] on the Sabbath [i.e., the World to Come].”
This comment is also based on the statement of our Sages (Shabbos 30a): “Since a person has died, he becomes free of all commandments. Thus, a person may no longer compensate for any lack of performance with the anticipation of any further reward.”
The Sforno (on Deuteronomy 7:11) remarks: “Today to perform them, and you should not overly concern yourself if you do not receive recompense in this world.” Clearly he is alluding to the fact that the righteous are not always richly rewarded in this world. The Gemara (Berachot 7b) discusses “tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo,” the righteous who suffer in this world and the wicked who prosper. How should we understand this phenomenon?
The Gemara answers that Hashem wishes to remove the blemishes of imperfectly righteous people in this world so that they can receive their complete reward in the World to Come. And for wicked people, Hashem wishes to reward them for their few good deeds in this world so that they attain no reward in the World to Come.
Of course, if the wicked repent, they too will receive a reward in the World to Come. Thus, we state in our prayers on Yom Kippur that Hashem seeks, not the death of the wicked, but their repentance “so that they live.” “Live” refers to the everlasting life of the World to Come (see Tosafot, Bava Kama 100a, s.v. “erech appayim l’tzadikim u’l’reshaim”). Such is the power of teshuvah that it enables every single Jew to claim his or her share in the World to Come.
The tanna R. Yaakov states (Avot 4:16), “This world is compared to the antechamber before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the antechamber in order to enter the palace.” Rashi (s.v. “k’dei she’tikanes l’traklin”) writes that surely a person appearing before an earthly king would take care to properly groom his hair and beard before entering the king’s court. So, too, a person should prepare himself in this world via repentance and good deeds in preparation for receiving a reward in the World to Come.
Rabbenu Yonah (Avot, ad loc.) goes even further, stating: “This world is only for the purpose of obtaining passage to the next world.” He cites the incident of R’ Yosi b. Yoezer (Bereishit Rabbah, 65) who, on his way to being executed by the evil Romans, came upon the wicked Yokim ish Tzrorot who was astride a horse. The latter remarked, “Look at the horse you ride [to your death] and look at the horse I ride.” R’ Yosi replied, “If such is the reward for one who violates His will, just imagine the reward for one who does His will.”
Those words left such a lasting impression on Yokim that he ended his life in such a manner that he experienced all four of the prescribed death penalties that are meted out by beit din. To which R’ Yosi b, Yoezer exclaimed: “In one short and easy moment he preceded me to the hereafter.” As R’ Yaakov says in Avot 4:17, “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all that awaits one in the World to Come.”
(To be continued)