What matters most to god? a fascinating answer can be found in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), which tells us that in he world to come, G-d will ask each of us four questions. Byconsidering these four questions while we’re still alive, we are able to measure our own success or failure, and know what and how to improve while we still have a chance.
I remember once reading a story about an evangelist who came to a town to preach the gospel. He needed to mail a letter, but didn’t know where the post office was. So he stopped a Jewish boy and asked for directions.
The boy told him how to get to the post office, and the preacher thanked him, saying, “If you’ll come to the church tonight, you can hear me tell everyone how to get to Heaven.”
The boy politely replied, “No, thanks,” To which the Reverend countered, “I will give you free admission.”
“I’m sorry, but I won’t be attending,” the boy replied.
“I don’t understand,” countered the evangelist. “I offer you free admission and the secret of how to get to Heaven; why wouldn’t you come?”
The boy replied, “How can you tell people the way to Heaven when you don’t even know the way to the post office?”
Judaism is not about getting to Heaven, but about bringing Heaven down to Earth through our good deeds and through and being able to answer “yes” to each of G-d’s four questions.
The First Question
The Talmud tells us that the first question G-d will ask a person is: “Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?”
A decent life is defined first and foremost by honesty, particularly with regard to monetary matters. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the question.
The inquiry doesn’t only pertain to one’s faithful dealings with other people, but also questions whether a person has dealt faithfully with his or herself. In other words, G-d’s line of inquiry is infinitely more profound and can be interpreted as asking, “Are you the person I gave you the ability to be? Did you conduct your life’s business affairs faithfully? Did you extend yourself to carry out the utmost good in the world with whatever abilities you were given?”
There is a story I love that illustrates this very point.
In the Chasidic world of Eastern Europe in the late 18th century, there lived a sage by the name of Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli, loved by all who knew
him for his piety and sense of humor.
One day, when he was old and death was near, Rabbi Zusya appeared troubled. His disciples attempted to reassure him, saying, “Reb Zusya, you have lived such an exemplary life. Surely G-d will reward you for it. Why, then, do you tremble at the prospect of dying?”
The Rabbi replied, “When I stand before G-d, if G-d should ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you another Abraham?’ I will have an answer for Him. I will say, ‘Master of the Universe, you did not grant me the great soul you granted Abraham.You did not blessme with the wisdomto become another Abraham.’
“Should He then ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not another Moses?’ I will have an answer for Him. I will say, ‘G-d, did you ever appear to me in a burning bush? You did not endow me with the prophetic insight to become another Moses.’ These questions I can answer.
“There is, however, one question I fear. What will I say to G-d when He asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?Why were you not the person I gave you the ability to be?’” G-d does not ask us to be someone else. He asks us to be ourselves.
I know people who see themselves as failures because they measure themselves by the wrong yardstick, comparing themselves to others. But if we take the story of Zusya to heart, we could save ourselves dozens of hours in therapy. Because G-d does not ask us to be someone else; rather, He asks us whether we were the person he gave us the ability to be.
G-d gives us the chance to do Mitzvot only we can and that is our task. The sum of these tasks is the meaning of a person’s life, the purpose of a person’s
existence, the story we are called upon to write.
All one can know is that one is here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances.
Consider the story of Biblical Moses. As a baby, Moses was placed in a basket and hidden amongst the bulrushes. Pharaoh’s daughter spotted him and decided to rescue the infant. She extended her hand towards the basket and, despite its being far beyond her reach, our tradition relates (Talmud, Sotah 12b) that a miracle occurred, her arm was lengthened, and she saved the child.
Often when we fail to act, it is not because of apathy, but because we think the situation is beyond our ability to fix. Someone is crying out for our help, but there is nothing we feel we can do, because the solution seems to be simply beyond our reach. Therefore, we resign ourselves to
inactivity, reasoning that the little we can do won’t change matters anyway, so why bother?
But, Pharaoh’s daughter heard a child’s cry and extended her arm. An unbridgeable distance lay between her and the basket containing the weeping infant, making her action seem utterly pointless. However, because she did the maximumof which she was capable, and because her hand did not hang idle while a crying heart needed her help, she achieved the impossible. Because she extended her arm, G-d extended her reach, enabling her to save a life and raise the greatest human being. Our acts make a difference, sometimes all the difference in the world.
We can never know the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of goodness. Could Pharaoh’s daughter have known that the child she rescued would one day stand alone to save a nation fromslavery and alter all of history? Obviously not. She could not have known it because the future is unknowable.
All one can know is that one is here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will light a candle of hope and holiness in the world G-d has placed us in.
To be a Jew is to answer, “Yes, I amtrying to be the person You gave me the ability to be.”
The Second Question
We’re told by the Talmud that the second question G-d asks a person is, “Did you set aside time for Torah study?” Studying Torah is the greatest of all the commandments and the secret of Jewish continuity. Arthur Hertzberg, the late professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, was asked to do a study (published in the Jewish Weekly Forward, August 30, 2002) on the founding members of B’nai B’rith, one of the largest Jewish institutions in America.
Hertzberg went all the way back to the 1840s, when B’nai B’rith was founded, and what he discovered was shocking. The professor could hardly find a single Jewish family among the descendants of the one hundred founding members.
How was it possible for the progeny of the very people who built such significant Jewish institutions to vanish from the Jewish community altogether?
The answer is that the only way to ensure the Jewish identity of one’s children is for parents to infuse their home with Torah and its values.
We provide our children with a fine secular education so that theymay climb the ladder of success, but we also need to provide them with a fine Jewish education so they can advance as Jews, with good character, noble values and positive attitudes.
Someone once said, “I spent my whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find when I reached the top, the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.” We need to climb the ladder of success, but we need to imbue that success with Jewish values. We do so by making time in our busy lives to learn Torah.
Jews throughout history, though they may have lacked much else, never ceased to value Torah education as a sacred task, one that endows the individual with dignity and depth.
The Third Question
The third question God will ask us is: “Did you attempt to raise a family?”
Parenting is difficult. Few things, however, are more precious and rewarding. I love the comment I once heard uttered by a new mother who said, “Since having a child I can relate better to G-d. Now I know what it feels like to create something you can’t control.”
Of course, not all are able to have biological children, but everyone can have spiritual children.
Having children is more than a gift. It is a responsibility. For us as Jews, it is the most sacred responsibility there is, because the future of the Jewish people depends on it.
For 4,000 years our people survived because, in every generation, Jews made it their highest priority to hand their faith down to their children and to sanctifymarriage and the Jewish home.
There is a story in a Yiddish book from the Middle Ages about a mother bird that was walking down the forest road with three baby birds, when the little family came upon a stream. The stream was too deep for the baby birds to walk across and too far for themto go around. So themother bird asked the first baby bird, “If I pick you up and carry you across the stream, how will you repay me?”
The baby bird answered, “At the next stream we come to, I’ll pick you up and carry you across.”
Themother said, “That’s a silly answer. You’re too small to carry me across.”
She asked the same question of the second fledgling and it answered, “When I’m grown up, I’ll carry you across streams.”
The mother bird shook her head and said, “Even when you’re grown up, I won’t need you to get across streams.”
Then she turned to the third bird, who answered, “Someday I’ll be amother bird and I’ll have babies ofmy own, and I’ll do all the things for them that you’ve done for me.”
And that, of course, is the correct answer.
We love our children, we take care of themand what we do for them now, someday they will do for their own children. They will have learned, by example, how to live as Jews.
We can’t live our children’s lives for them. They are free. They will make their own choices. We can, however, show them what we love.
If you want Jewish grandchildren, love Judaismand live in it with a sense of privilege and joy.
We provide our children with a secular education so that they may climb theladder to success, but they need a fine Jewish education so that
they can advance as Jews.
The Fourth Question
The fourth question is: “Did you hope for the world’s redemption?”
In other words, did you have faith in the future? One of the greatest contributions Judaism has made to the world is the knowledge that there is a grand design for history; the understanding that humanity is moving toward a better future. Of course, there will always be setbacks along the road, but Jews never give up their faith in ultimate redemption.
The world is still full of violence, conflict and injustice, but to have faith in redemption means we are not willing to settle for less than our vision of an ideal world. Thus, the Jewish task is to bring forward a redeemed world. We bring redemption, one day at a time, one act at a time, one Mitzvah at a time, one life at a time.
ElieWiesel once pointed out that just over a century ago, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud lived on the same street in Vienna. “Luckily,” said Wiesel, “they never met. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had?”
Theodor Herzl would have said, “I have this dream of a Jewish people going back to Israel!”
Sigmund Freud would have said, “Tellme, Herr Herzl, how long have you been having this dream? Lie down on my couch and I will psychoanalyze you.” Sigmund Freud would have cured Theodor Herzl of his dreams and today wemight not have Israel.
Thank G-d we are the people who were never cured of our dreams. We are a people who, though scarred and traumatized, never lost our humor nor our faith, and still believe in ultimate redemption; who see human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling.
We bring redemption, one deed at a time. “A little light,” said the Jewish mystics, “drives away much darkness.” And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet together so beautiful, begins to bathe the world in the glow of the divine presence.