Time Well-Spent

If you will go in the way of My laws and you will observe My commandments and perform them, then I will give your rains in their time and the land will give forth its bounty and the tree of the field will give its fruit.  (Sefer VaYikra 26:3-4)

The consequences of observing the commandments

These passages introduce Parshat Bechukotai.  Much of this parsha is devoted to describing the consequences of observing or disregarding the commandments. The Torah explains that if the commandments are observed, then the people will prosper in the Land of Israel.  If they neglect or reject the commandments, then they will be deprived of the land’s bounty.  If this neglect continues, catastrophe will follow.  Sorrow will mount upon sorrow.  The Jewish people will be exiled from their land.  Their troubles will follow them into exile, where the Jewish people will be persecuted and oppressed.

It is interesting that in this description of the consequences of observance or neglect of the commandments no mention is made of Olam HaBah – the afterlife.  Rambam – Maimonides – posits that the afterlife is the ultimate reward that awaits those who observe the commandments and that the most serious punishment is to be deprived of this great reward.[1]

The Torah’s silence regarding the afterlife

The Torah’s overall treatment of the afterlife is even more troubling.  According to Rambam, one of the basic principles of the Torah is that we are rewarded and punished for our behaviors.  In outlining this principle, Rambam states that the ultimate reward is Olam HaBah and the most severe punishment is to be deprived of the afterlife.[2]  One would expect, given its significance, that the Olam HaBah would be thoroughly discussed in the Torah.  However, despite its importance, it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Written Torah.  According to Rambam’s view on its importance, this is a remarkable omission!

There are a number of reasons for the Torah’s perplexing treatment of the afterlife.  Let’s begin with the simplest of these.

As noted, much of Parshat Bechukotai deals with the consequences of observing or neglecting the commandments.  One way to understand this discussion is that the Torah is providing motivation for observance.  It is inspiring us to be scrupulous in our observance of its commandments by promising us wonderful rewards in exchange for our faithfulness.  It’s description of the consequences of neglecting its commandments is intended to allay any tendency to disregard them.  In other words, these consequences are a “carrot and stick”.  If this is the Torah’s objective in this discussion, then Olam HaBah should be mentioned as the ultimate reward and exclusion from it as the most severe punishment.

It is possible that the objective of the discussion is not to establish a “carrot and stick”.  In fact, it is possible that the Torah does not at any point pursue this objective.  What is the Torah’s objective in describing consequences?


Beware that you do not forget Hashem, your L-rd, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day.  Lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases…. And you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me.”  (Sefer Devarim 8:11-17)

The Torah’s perspective on causality

In these passages Moshe is speaking to the Jewish nation.  He describes to the people the blessings that they will enjoy in the Land of Israel.  He warns them to not delude themselves and view their wealth and abundance as created through their own “strength and the might of their hands.”  They must remain aware of Hashem’s role; He bestows these blessings upon them.

Moshe is speaking of a theme that recurs throughout the Torah.  Our success or disappointment in the material world is not simply a result of the efficacy of our efforts.  Material success or disappointment is not merely the natural product of cause and effect.  The Torah teaches that our success or disappointment is very much influenced by our spiritual achievements and activities.  In other words, the Torah’s discussion of the consequences of observance and neglect of the commandments is not intended as a “carrot and stick.”  The Torah is communicating an insight into how the material world functions.  Outcomes are not determined exclusively by material cause and effect.  Our spiritual lives influence our material achievements.[3]

In short, the Torah is not providing motivation.  It is providing us with an accurate perspective of how the material world functions.  In this discussion, there is no place for a description or for mention of Olam HaBah.  The Torah does not deal with reward and punishment – per se.  Therefore, it does not discuss the ultimate reward and punishment.

Let us consider two other explanations for the Torah’s silence on the issue of Olam HaBah.  In this discussion we will learn more about the Torah’s conception of the afterlife and discover how this conception determines the Torah’s treatment of the subject.

The afterlife is a natural consequence

Rabbeinu Ovadia Sefrono explains that the afterlife is a natural consequence of developing one’s spiritual life.  He explains that every human being is endowed with a nascent spiritual soul.  We choose to either nurture this soul or to disregard its development.  If we develop it, then we achieve the afterlife as a natural consequence.  This is because death only ends one’s physical existence.  It does not impact the soul; the soul continues to exist in the afterlife.[4]  In other words, relative to the spiritual soul, one’s physical existence is similar to clothing.  Shedding one’s clothing does not deprive one of life.  Similarly, the demise of one’s physical existence does not deprive one’s spiritual soul of its existence.

Ramban – Nachmanides – suggests that for this reason the Torah does not discuss the afterlife. The consequences of observance and neglect of the commandments described in the Torah are not natural outcomes.  They are brought about through Hashem’s intervention into the natural causal chain.  The Torah’s discussion of consequences focuses upon those that we cannot know without revelation.  These are those consequences brought about by Hashem’s intervention into the material world.  The Torah does not discuss the afterlife because it is a natural consequence.  We can know it without a revelation.[5]

The afterlife cannot be described

In Rambam’s discussion of Olam HaBah he acknowledges a difficulty in dealing with the subject.   It is not possible to describe the afterlife.  We each possess a spiritual soul.  However, in this life that soul is tightly “bound” to one’s material existence.  As a result, our perceptions are closely tied to our material nature.  This limitation prevents us from perceiving, understanding, and appreciating, a purely spiritual existence.[6]  An analogy will clarify this obstacle.  Imagine attempting to describe color to a person deprived of sight his entire life.  We describe that which is new to someone by comparing it to that with which the person is familiar.  There is nothing in this sightless person’s experiences to which we can compare color.  Similarly, we have nothing within the sphere of our experience as material creatures to which we can compare Olam HaBah.

Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that this issue explains that Torah’s silence regarding Olam HaBah.  The Torah is intended to be accessible to both the wise and the less scholarly.  The challenges in comprehending Olam HaBah explains the Torah’s omission of its discussion.  It is an issue that is not accessible to most of the audience whom the Torah addresses.[7]

Avoiding a misinterpretation of the afterlife

Rambam makes a comment that adds a dimension to the concern identified by Ibn Ezra.  We noted Rambam’s observation regarding the impossibility of describing the afterlife.  He also observes that this challenge influenced other religions’ conception of the afterlife.  It led them to describe it in material terms – “to eat and drink pleasant foods, engage in intimacy with beautiful consorts, wear garments of linen and lace, dwell in ivory tents, use vessels of silver and gold, and things similar to these.”[8]  In other words, the emphasis that these religions place on the afterlife led to their perversion of it.  In order to make it meaningful, they developed a completely material conception of the afterlife.  It is reasonable to conclude that the Torah avoids emphasizing Olam HaBah rather than invite its portrayal as a material reward.

Using our time well

We have discussed the Torah’s reasons for not speaking openly about Olam HaBah.  Let us close with a moving comment of Rambam on the relevance of Olam HaBah to our lives in this material world.

We have already explained… that after death one cannot acquire or add to one’s perfection.  One can acquire perfection and add to one’s degree of perfection in this world.  Solomon alluded to this in saying:  for there is neither deed nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, where you are going (Kohelet 9:10).  Rather, in that condition in which one travels one will remain for eternity.  Therefore, a person should make every effort in this short and minimal time… for its loss is terrible and it has no replacement and there is no possibility of making up for it.  Because the Sages knew this, they were scrupulous to spend their time only in study and adding to wisdom.  In truth, they used well all of their time and did not waste it on material matters – (investing) only a short time in that which was impossible to avoid. 

Others waste all of it on material matters, exclusively.  The consequence is “that just as he came so shall he go” (Kohelet 5:15).  They incur a loss that is eternal. 

The masses – in their entirety – invert the truth of this issue.  They say that the first group (the Sages) have lost out on the world and the second group (the others) have benefited from the world.  The truth is the opposite, as we have said.  “They make the light into darkness and the darkness into light (Yishayahu 5:20).  Woe unto those who have, in truth, lost out![9]

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 8:1.  Rambam’s position is that the greatest punishment is to be excluded from the afterlife.  He does not subscribe to any version of active punishment following death or purgatory.  Ramban – Nachmainides – and many others disagree with this position.  (See Nachmanides, Sha’ar HaGamol).  Rav Yisrael Chait observed that Rambam’s position is the more severe.  Punishment in some version of purgatory provides a means of atonement even after death and the eventual realization of an afterlife.  However, Rambam’s position does not allow for any atonement or the attainment of perfection after death.

[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[3] For the purposes of this discussion, this concepts is presented in a simplified form.  The Torah does not suggest that our material endeavors are meaningless.  Those who do not strive to provide for themselves should not expect that a miracle will compensate for their indifference.  The Torah’s perspective is subtle.  We must engage the material world, struggle through the challenges we encounter, and take advantage of the opportunities we encounter.  However, we must recognize that our diligence and endeavors do not assure our success.  Another factor plays an essential role – the will of Hashem.  His will determines whether our efforts will secure success or whether we will encounter failure and disappointment.  In turn, Hashem’s response to our material efforts is influenced or determined by our spiritual lives.

[4] Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 1:27.

[5] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:11-12.  See also Sefer VaYikra18:29.

[6] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[7] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 32:39.

[8] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 8:6.

[9] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 4:22.