Reward in the Next World
Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: "God says, 'Do not sit and weigh the mitzvos of the Torah...Don't say, "Since a particular mitzvah is significant, I will do it because its reward is great, and since another mitzvah is less significant, I won't do it." ' God did not reveal to His creations the reward for any particular mitzvah, so that they should perform each mitzvah with perfection... God did not reveal the reward for any mitzvah except for two: the hardest and the easiest. Honoring parents is the hardest, and its reward is long life, as the verse say:
Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be lengthened... (Shemos 20:12)
The easiest is sending away the mother bird. What is its reward? It is long life, as the verse says:
Certainly send away the mother and take the chicks for yourself, in order that it will be good for you and you will have lengthened days (Devarim 22:7)." (Devarim Rabbah 6:2)
One of the many mitzvos in this week's Torah portion is that of shilu'ach hakein, sending away the mother bird, and it is for this reason that this rather general midrash is recorded here. The midrash actually promotes some difficulty. Is it really true that mitzvos have equal reward in order to prompt us to devote equal time to each? This appears to be contradicted by the following mishnah:
Ben Hey Hey says, "According to the effort, so is the reward." (Avos 5:26)
Apparently, the more effort that goes into mitzvah performance, the greater the reward that will be reaped. How may we reconcile these two statements of our Sages?
In order to do so, we must first address another problem: the nature of the reward for mitzvah performance. Our Sages tell us:
There is no reward for mitzvos in this world...[The Gemara then relates a story of a person who died while sending away the mother bird at the behest of his father, thus performing both mitzvos, which should have given him long life.] Where was this person's long life? Rather, these promises refer to "days" which are eternally long [in Olam HaBa, the Next World]. (Kiddushin 39b)
It is obvious that Olam HaBa is completely unlike anything which a mortal has experienced. It is utterly impossible to describe it or depict it in any way. Just as it is impossible to describe colors to a blind person or music to a deaf person, so too, it is impossible to depict Olam HaBa in human terms. In reality, one may explain this issue quite simply. It is clear that Olam HaBa is an entirely intellectual or spiritual environment completely hidden from the physical, revealed world which we inhabit. These two worlds are incompatible in the extreme, and thus the reward which one receives in Olam HaBa for actions carried out in Olam HaZeh (this world) cannot be revealed to mere mortals. It is therefore necessary to reinterpret the reward which appears to be offered by the Torah for observing the mitzvos of honoring parents and sending away the mother bird. The long life which is promised cannot possibly describe the actual nature and quality of the life in Olam HaBa, for the reasons which we have already mentioned. Instead, God guarantees that as a reward for these mitzvos, one will merit to receive a share in Olam HaBa, which is a world of infinite length and goodness. But the nature of the reward which is available there cannot be depicted in human terms.
Of course, this does not preclude the possibility (and indeed great likelihood) that the quality of the reward received there differs from mitzvah to mitzvah. In fact, it seems only reasonable that the nature of a mitzvah's reward should alter according to the exact circumstances of its performance. Many factors, including the level of intellectual and emotional involvement with the mitzvah and the quality of one's love, fear, and attachment to God at the moment of action, will determine the standard of the final product. This is discussed by the mishnah in Avos, which states that the reward is commensurate with the effort invested in the mitzvah. But the fact that a reward (at least of some sort) in Olam HaBa follows from mitzvah observance is indeed equal - performing any one has this advantage.
This enables us to return to our original midrash. Our Sages warn against weighing the relative values of mitzvos in order to decide which to do and which not to do. Every mitzvah, as we have seen, provides a portion in Olam HaBa, whether "significant" or less so. But since the actual reward will always be dependent upon the quality of one's intellectual involvement in the performance of the mitzvah, it is utterly impossible, and indeed futile, to calculate the merit which will accrue to it. For if one performs a "major" mitzvah with little enthusiasm, little merit will accrue, whereas the performance of even a "minor" precept with tremendous passion and a great measure of love for God will produce a magnificent reward in Olam HaBa. While we know that every mitzvah produces Olam HaBa, the observance of any one may generate a great or small reward. As such, we ought not to consider the relative merits of mitzvos but instead perform every one with gusto and joy.