In this week’s parsha, we find one of the two mitzvot for which we are promised length of days – sending away a mother bird. The other – honoring parents – is found in the Ten Commandments. However, the Gemara (Kiddushin 39b) challenges this based on a documented story of someone who died while doing both of these commandments together. As a result, the Gemara feels forced to conclude that the length of days mentioned in the verse is actually an allusion to the world to come, and not about living a long life in this world.
Netziv however points out that this conclusion is not the only one possible. Rather one may find an alternative answer by looking further into the nature of personal reward. He begins with the unspoken assumption that God will always try to benefit us as much as possible. Based on that idea, he writes that the timing of a person’s reward will depend on their attitude towards the performance of mitzvot: One who does commandments in order to get reward and avoid punishment is better off getting them in the world to come, since there is no pleasure as great as that which we will experience then. But one who serves primarily out of love for God will have more to gain by getting more time in this world. For in the next world, there is really nothing we can do for God. While will likely still experience love for Him, the giving that goes along with love will no longer be available to us. For Netziv, the upshot is that the incident described in Kiddushin happened to someone who was serving in order to receive reward. In the case of such a person, one must indeed read the verse metaphorically. But for the person who serves from love of God, the verse remains literal.
(This understanding provides Netziv with an answer to one of the rabbis’ most paradoxical statements. Namely, in Avot 4:17, R. Yaakov says, “More precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all the life of the world to come; And more precious is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come, than all the life of this world.” Netziv explains that the first statement is talking about someone serving out of love for God, whereas the second is speaking about someone serving out of the desire for reward.)
Of course, the above drives a further paradox. It comes out that those that benefit most from this world are those ostensibly least concerned with it. But perhaps it is less of a paradox than we might first imagine. Upon greater consideration, we realize that proper enjoyment of the world actually leads to love of God and even furthers it. As Rambam describes it (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2), “When man will reflect concerning His works, and His great and wonderful creatures, and will behold through them His wonderful, matchless and infinite wisdom, he will spontaneously be filled with love [of God].”
The thrill that one feels from watching a majestic sunset, smelling the alluring fragrance of a rose, hearing brilliantly melodious music or tasting delicious food should ideally bring about the love that Rambam so beautifully describes. In fact, it may be one of the main reasons that these things are so designed.
If this is not always our experience, it is more a statement about us than it is about the nature of things. For to focus only on personal pleasure at such times is not only artificial, it is a lost opportunity. It reduces a naturally transcendent moment and makes it into something trite. (Saying a blessing before taking part of many pleasures is halacha’s way of helping us avoid such a pitfall, by connecting the pleasure with the larger picture we are describing.)
There is nothing wrong – and actually everything right – about loving God’s world. But to be significant, it must be a love grounded in enhanced awareness and appreciation of God. For at that point, it becomes the tool to serve Him that it is meant to be. And once we make use of that tool, it follows that – all other things being equal – God will want to give us the appropriate reward of staying in this beautiful world as long as possible.