Rebbi Yaakov said: “This world is like a corridor before the world to come; prepare yourself in the corridor, so that you may enter the palace.”
He used to say: “More precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all of life in the world to come; And more precious is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come, than all of life in this world.” (Avot 4:16-17)
At the end of Avot’s fourth chapter, Rebbi Yaakov makes two statements about the relationship between this world and the next (olam haba). The two statements connect with one another and together define the focus and goal of life in this world.
Rebbi Yaakov begins by comparing this world to a corridor that leads to a palace – the next world. This comparison has two implications: The first is that this world is not the end goal. There is a bigger, better, nicer and more meaningful place – the “palace” – we reach after passing through this world. We are familiar with this world, drawn to its pleasures, and focused on its reality and challenges. Rebbi Yaakov teaches that this world is, in essence, just the “promo.”
The Mesillat Yesharim opens by explaining (based on our mishnah) that we need to realize that we were not created (mainly) for this world. Our souls ultimately seek things more meaningful than what this world has to offer, and we should make sure not to get lured astray by the non-spiritual aspects of our world.
This concept connects to two other statements of Rebbi Yaakov. The first is his assertion that Hashem rewards mitzvah observance only in the next world, not in this one (Kiddushin 39a). Understandably, reward is given in the palace, not the corridor.
Rebbi Yaakov also expresses this idea in the second mishnah above, where he teaches: “One hour of tranquility in the world to come is more precious than all of life in this world.” Unlike this world, in which one can never be completely happy, the next world offers us true peace, satisfaction and tranquility. Reward is given only in the next world because one moment of peace and tranquility there is greater than a whole life of pleasure here. Knowing and appreciating this should help us avoid pursuing the pleasures of this world. Doing so would be selling ourselves short.
The Way In
All this does not mean that there is no importance to this world or that there is no significance to the hallway. Though not the ultimate end, life in the hallway is very important, and our time here needs to be maximized. We see this from the first part of the (second) mishnah where Rebbi Yaakov asserts that “one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more precious than all of the World to Come.” Though the next world is the world of reward and satisfaction, we earn that reward and satisfaction through our actions and personal reflection in this world.
Though only a corridor, it is where we prepare to enter and earn our place in the palace.
Rebbe Yaakov emphasizes the need to take advantage of life in this world in the first mishnah as well, when he urges, “Prepare yourself in the corridor, so that you may enter the palace.” The right to enter the olam haba palace is earned through our efforts in olam hazeh.
Kohelet Rabbah (4:5) adds (to Rebbe Yaakov’s statement) that “the next world is earned only by what we do in this world.” Like passing through a corridor that is the sole entry to the palace, preparation in this world is the only way to gain entry to the next one. Our efforts in this world are not just one way forward; they are the sole opportunity to earn and enhance our portion in the next world.
The Vilna Gaon expressed this idea with his last words, spoken while crying on his deathbed. His talmidim asked him why he was crying. Was he afraid of facing his Maker? What did he think he would be punished for? The Gra responded that he was crying over the fact that he would soon be unable to perform mitzvot and earn reward. The Gra appreciated the unique opportunity life in this world offers. Only here can we perform mitzvot and enhance our eternal life in the palace of the world to come.
Two additional important lessons may be learned from Rebbe Yaakov’s words. We learn the first lesson from his use of the term “sha’ah achat (one moment).” Every single moment has significance and needs to be maximized and taken advantage of. Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi famously said, “Some acquire their share in the next world through one moment (as opposed to others who need many years) (Avoda Zara 10b).” Each moment can and should be of great significance and impact.
Action and Reflection
A second lesson is about the primary importance of deed and self-reflection. Instead of Torah and chochmah, Rebbe Yaakov focuses on teshuvah (repentance) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds) as the meaningful content of our world. Though Torah study is a central focus of our time and energy, its significance is in how it drives us to build our identity and live our lives properly. As the Gemara in Kiddushin states, “Study is great(er), for study leads to action (40b).”
Today and Tomorrow
I think we can summarize Rebbe Yaakov’s teachings using the Gemara in Eruvin (22a), which explains the Torah’s emphasis (Devarim 6:6 and many other places) on the need to do mitzvot today with five words: “Hayom la’asotam, machar l’kabel scharam.” Today (this world) is when we work. Tomorrow (the next world) is when we receive reward.
May we maximize every day of this world by realizing that we are here to reflect and grow.