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The Value of Life

Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

One of the main incidents in this week's Torah portion is the war between the Jewish people and the Midianites. In the midst of the battle, the Jews encountered their great enemy, Bilaam who was there to collect his wages for causing the Jews to sin at Baal Peor. The Torah tells us "Bilaam the son of Beor they killed with the sword." (1)

It would seem that the death of Bilaam was a punishment for his efforts to harm the Jewish people in the desert. The Talmud, however, cites a far earlier crime that he committed as the reason for his untimely death. "Three were in that piece of advice [of how Pharaoh should treat the Jewish people], Bilaam, Job and Yisro: Bilaam advised [to harm them] and was killed; Job was silent and was judged with suffering; Yisro escaped and merited that his descendants should sit in the Temple's chamber of hewn stone." (2) Bilaam was punished with death at the hands of the Jewish people because of his evil advice to Pharaoh many years earlier. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that this Talmud poses a great difficulty: It is clear that Bilaam deserved a far greater punishment than Job, because Job didn't commit an active crime, rather he remained silent. Yet, it would seem that Job's punishment was far greater than that of Bilaam. Whilst Bilaam suffered a quick death, Job had to endure suffering that no other man has ever experienced. How can this be understood?

Rav Shmuelevitz answers that life itself is the greatest gift possible and that any pain, no matter how bad, is infinitely greater than death. Consequently, Bilaam's punishment was far more severe than that of Job for Job still had the gift of life, whilst Bilaam lost it forever.

Rav Leib Chasman offers an excellent analogy to help understand this concept; imagine a man wins a huge prize on the lottery, and at that every moment, one of his jugs breaks. Would this minor inconvenience bother him at all at this time of great joy? The happiness that he experiences due to the lottery prize nullifies any feelings of pain that come in everyday life. So too, a person should have the same attitude in life - his joy at the mere fact of his existence should be so great that it should render any difficulties as meaningless, even sufferings as great as those that Job endured for they are nothing in comparison with the wonderful gift of life.(3)

Why is the gift of life so precious? The Mishna in Pirkei Avos can help answer this question: "One moment of repentance and good deeds in Olam Hazeh (this world) is greater than all of Chayei Olam Habah (the Next World), and one moment of peripheral pleasure in Olam Habah is greater than all of Chayei Olam Hazeh."(4) This Mishna seems to contradict itself - it begins by stating that Olam Hazeh is incomparably greater than Olam Habah and ends by saying the opposite!

The commentaries explain that the two parts of the Mishna are focusing on different aspects. The second part of the Mishna is comparing the pleasure that one can attain in the two 'worlds'. In that sense, Olam Habah is infinitely greater than Olam Hazeh - there is no earthly pleasure that can begin to compare with one moment of pleasure in Olam Habah. The pleasure there is that of connecting to God, the Source of all creation - all other pleasures are meaningless and transitory in comparison. However, the first part of the Mishna is focusing on the ability to create more of a connection to God. In that aspect Olam Hazeh is infinitely greater because it is the place of free will in which we have the ability to choose to become closer to God by performing mitzvot. In Olam Habah there is no more opportunity to increase the connection to Him. We can now understand why life is so precious - each moment is a priceless opportunity to attain more closeness to God, the ultimate pleasure that will accompany us for eternity in Olam Habah. The Vilna Gaon expressed the value of Olam Hazeh on his deathbed. He held his Tzitzit and cried, saying, "How precious is Olam Hazeh that for a few prutot [a very small amount of an old currency] it is possible to gain merit for the mitzva of Tsitsit and to see the 'Divine Presence', whereas in Olam Habah it is impossible to gain anything." (5)

This idea is also demonstrated by the Talmud in Avoda Zara.(6) It tells of Elazar Ben Durdaya, an inveterate sinner. On one occasion, when he was about to commit a terrible sin, he was told that even if he repented his teshuva (repentance) will never be accepted. This 'sentence' affected him so deeply that he did repent and he died in a state of perfect teshuva. As his soul left him, a Bas Kol (a voice from Heaven) came out and said that Rabbi Elazar Ben Durdaya is ready to go into Olam Habah. The Talmud then says that when Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi (who is usually known as Rebbi) heard this story he cried out, "there are those that earn Olam Habah in many years and there are those that earn it in one moment." The commentaries wonder why Rebbi was so upset by this incident. He, a person who had struggled for many years in Divine Service, was surely destined for a far greater portion in Olam Habah than someone who earned Olam Habah for one moment of inspired teshuva!

Rav Noach Weinberg zt"l answers in the name of his father, that Rebbi was crying because he saw the power of one moment in Olam Hazeh; in one moment a person can earn infinite bliss, therefore he was crying at any failure to utilize each moment in the best possible way. Each moment is an incredible opportunity at creating more Olam Habah.

The Chofetz Chaim applies this concept to Jewish law.(7) He brings the Sefer Hachinuch who writes that there are six mitzvos that are constantly incumbent upon man(8) and that every second throughout a person's life a person can fulfill them by merely thinking about them. Consequently, there is no limit to the reward for performing these mitvzot. This can also help explain why Jewish law is so against ending a person's life prematurely, even if he is unable to live a normal life. Rav Zev Leff points out that even a person in a coma may well be able to perform numerous mitzvot by his thought. He can fulfill the mitzvot that only require thought and moreover, the Rabbis teach us that if a person has a desire to perform a mitzvah but is prevented from doing so, he nevertheless receives reward as if he did indeed fulfill it. Therefore, every second more of life is a great opportunity to create more Olam Habah.(9)

We have seen how every second of life is infinitely precious. Yet we often think that little can be achieved in a few minutes here or there. However, experience has proven differently. The great Rabbinic leader of the Hungarian Jewish community in the 19th Century, the Chasam Sofer was once asked how he became such a great Torah scholar; he answered that he did so in 'five minutes'. He meant that by utilizing every available moment he was able to learn so much more. Rav Moshe Feinstein once had a very large smile on his face - he explained that he had just completed the whole of the Talmud. This was not a novel achievement for him, he was known to have finished it dozens of times, but this time was different. It comprised of his learning in the gaps at social events when people normally wait around for the next stage to take place. By consistently learning small amounts he eventually learnt all of the Talmud this way. There are people who are unable to learn for much of the day but they can use small amounts of time to attain surprisingly great achievements in learning.

We have seen how precious the gift of life is and the great value of every moment of life. Life is full of challenges and there are times when a person can feel despondent - but if he remembers that life itself is cause for joy then he can overcome any negative feelings: When the Alter of Novardok first started to build yeshivas, he was unsuccessful. He built yeshivas and they collapsed, he organized groups and they disintegrated. In addition, he and his approach were attacked by opponents. At that time he came to Kelm and his Rebbi, The Alter of Kelm noticed he looked sad and understood why. That Motsei Shabbos when a group had gathered to hear his talk, he stood at the podium and remained silent for a very, very long time. Then he banged his hand on the shtender and thundered, "It is enough for a living being that he is alive." Over and over he repeated his words until finally he told the group to pray the evening prayers. "That session" said the Alter of Novardok "dispelled my gloom and cleared my thoughts." (10) The Alter of Kelm taught the Alter of Novardok a priceless lesson - as long as one is alive, there is nothing to complain about.



1. Mattos, 31:8.

2. Sotah 11a.

3. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Shemos, Maamer 29, Osher Hachaim, p.123.

4. Avos, 4:17.

5. Sichos Mussar, p.125.

6. Avoda Zara 17a.

7. Orach Chaim 1:1 Biur Halacha Diboor Hamaschil 'Hu Klal Gadol b'Torah'.

8. Sefer Hachinuch, Hakdama, Simuns 25, 26, 387, 417, 418, 432. The mitzvot are: To know that there is a G-d; Not to follow any other gods; to know that G-d is One; To love G-d; To fear G-d; Not to go after one's heart and eyes.

9. It should be noted that even if it were impossible for a person to perform any more mitzvot even in his thought, nonetheless all the laws pertaining to saving and ending a life remain. (Orach Chaim, Biur Halacha 329:2 Diboor Hamaschil 'Ela lefi Shaah'.




10. Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, p.145-6.

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