Rabbi Israel Chait

Transcribed by a student

Rabbi Yaakov says, “This world is like a hallway (prozdor) before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the hallway so you may enter the drawing room (traklin).”

Maimonides writes:

A traklin is a chamber and a prozdor is a gatehouse. And the metaphor is clear and the intention is known. As it is in this world that man acquires the virtues through which he merits the World to Come. As this world is indeed a path and a passageway to the World to Come.

Rashi writes:

Every man must fix himself in this world with repentance and good deeds, for one who toils on Friday will eat on Shabbos (one who toils in this world will enjoy the next world).

Rabbeinu Yona writes:

And he wants to say that this world is only so that one merits the World to Come.

The next mishna continues this theme...


He would say, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the World to Come. And one hour of pleasure in the World to Come is better than all the time in this world.”

Maimonides comments:

We have already elucidated in the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin that there is no completion or addition after death. Instead, a person increases and completes his virtue in this world. And about this, [King] Solomon hinted when he stated (Koheles 9:10), “For there is no action, no reasoning, no knowledge, no wisdom in the grave to where you are going.” But this matter is that [the situation/nature of existence] to which a person goes will remain [the same] forever. And because of this, a man should make efforts during this short time and not waste his time, but only [spend it] on the acquisition of virtues—as his loss would [otherwise] be great, since he has no replacement [for it] and he cannot acquire [it later]. And since the pious ones knew this, they only saw [fit] to finish their time with wisdom and by increasing their virtues; and they benefited from all their time in the true way. And they frittered very little time on physical matters and on things that are necessary and impossible to do without it. But others spent all their time in physicality and they left [the world] like they came [to it]—“All corresponding to how it came, so will it go”—and they lost an eternal loss. And the masses all switched the truth about this question and said that the first group [the wise men] lost the world and that the last group profited [from] the world. And the matter is the opposite, as we have recounted. And they make darkness into light and light into darkness. And woe is it to those who destroy the truth. And [King] Solomon, peace be upon him, made this matter a fundamental in Koheles in his praising the profit of the world and in his disgracing its loss. And its elucidation is that there is after death neither gain nor [any] other acquisition of that which he refrained from here. And this is all true. And when you examine that book from this perspective, the truth will be clear.

What is meant by “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the World to Come?”

If one does not repent and perform good deeds, he will have a lower level in Olam Haba and all of Olam Haba cannot compensate for the [higher] level he might have achieved had he repented and performed good deeds. The quality of Olam Haba for the one who repented and performed good deeds is of a far greater quality. No quantity of a lower level of Olam Haba, no matter how long it is extended, could compensate for the loss of one who failed to perform even a moment of repentance and good deeds.

And one hour of pleasure in the World to Come is better than all the time in this world.

All the greatest satisfactions of this world are qualitatively differentiated from the satisfaction of Olam Haba. Rashi says that this life pales in comparison to Olam Haba because of the pains and evils that we endure, and because of the fear of death. Ibn Ezra says this as well in Koheles, “Death is always between man’s eyes.” Man always has the specter of death before his eyes and he can never really enjoy life. Why does Rashi discuss pains and evils? The mishna says that all of this world does not measure up to a moment of pleasure in Olam Haba. To make a stronger point, shouldn’t Rashi have said that even a blissful earthly life does not compare to Olam Haba?

There is a certain amount of dissatisfaction that is naturally inescapable, even in a good life. This dissatisfaction exists in two areas: the externals—physical frustration—and even more so in terms of the internal world—the psyche. The nature of satisfaction that the psyche desires does not conform to what exists in reality. That is what Rashi means by the “pains and evils.” The psyche does not wish to experience any frustrations, rather it desires total pleasure. The world the psyche desires is not the physical existence in which we live. The psyche’s desires are desires of fantasy, and as reality does not offer fantasy, people experience frustration when seeking physical pleasures. This describes the pains and evils. And even enjoyments themselves contain moments of frustration. For when one is hungry, he is in pain, and he can only enjoy food as long as he has that pain of hunger. And when he removes that pain and is full, he can no longer eat, as this becomes painful. Man can only enjoy the desire when he has pain, and once he removes the pain he can no longer enjoy the desire.

A chocham who studies human nature will conclude that there is no way a human being can enjoy a life of total physical pleasure. Even the desires one searches for have their roots in childhood fantasy, to which reality does not conform. Thus, the satisfaction is only a substitute for what a person searches for in his fantasy, and therefore one becomes frustrated. Additionally, all pleasures are short-lived, driving people to seek subsequent pleasures. A philosopher said that every enjoyment is followed either by depression or by another desire.

 The second pain Rashi mentions is the fear of death. However, this fear is irrational as one no longer exists here once he dies. The error is that people feel they will still be here, but under the ground, and that is false. This is based on the immortality fantasy driving one to deny that he departs Earth, rather he feels he will experience “death underground.” This false view is represented in the language we use: “He is dead.” But this is a total contradiction. The word “is” represents the fallacy that one is still here. People falsely believe the dead person still “is.” However, one should accurately say, “He is not.” The immortality fantasy cannot accept that one is not, forcing people to say, “He is dead.”

Therefore, Rashi says that earthly life can be summed up as this: “All satisfactions are not real, but the frustrations are real, and the fear of death looms over all of man’s accomplishments and satisfactions.” Man is inherently caught up in conflict and can never achieve satisfaction. That is the earthly existence.

Man seeks satisfaction by attempting to capture a fantasy, but reality simply does not conform to fantasy. Man’s disappointment comes from a failed attempt to control reality, which is impossible. Man fails to realize that the nature of his ultimate desires is a fantasy. [What is “fantasy?” It is an imaginary, perfect, purely pleasurable, and endless experience, which does not exist.] Man refuses to recognize one most painful idea: At the core of his most desired and cherished dreams, lies a great fantasy. Man always blames reality, saying, “If I could only make certain changes I would achieve genuine happiness.” But if man were to truly understand his desire he would acknowledge that reality does not conform to it. However, man refuses to turn his mind’s eye on his underlying desire, explaining his constant depression and desperation.

If this is the case, it would appear that man is doomed to an unhappy life. Either man experiences depression when he cannot attain his fantasies, or he gives up the search and experiences no satisfaction.

The enjoyment of Olam Haba is infinitely greater than earthly satisfaction because life is full of “pains and evils.” There is no way to derive satisfaction from the physical world. In his Commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides offers another important reason for man’s frustrations: Everything in nature has its own type of quality. For example, the quality of animal life differs from the quality of human life. The quality of the object’s enjoyment cannot be greater than the object itself. Therefore, even if the psyche’s satisfaction were achievable, that satisfaction would never compare to the satisfaction of Olam Haba. This is because the psyche [man’s emotional make up] is part of the physical world, while the soul is of a different nature altogether. That is why the soul exists eternally while the psyche is temporal. Chazal’s main concept regarding Olam Haba is stated in Berachos 34b: 

All the prophets prophesied only regarding the Messianic Era, but regarding Olam Haba, “No eye has seen it except for You, God” (Isaiah 64:3).

This verse has a secondary meaning: No one knows the nature of the enjoyment of Olam Haba. Maimonides explains this to mean that every particular thing has an attending enjoyment. For example, an animal eats grass and this function is endowed with a certain pleasure. When the psyche obtains its desire, there is an attending enjoyment. The only enjoyment we do not experience in this world is the soul’s enjoyment. Maimonides states this in his Commentary on the Mishna in Sanhedrin. In earthly life, there is no such thing as a spiritual enjoyment. Due to the nature of the merger between the soul and the psyche in the body, our enjoyments are purely psychological. Chazal agree with this view of Maimonides as well. It is a fundamental belief; we are prevented from enjoying spiritual pleasure on Earth. This means that our enjoyment of ideas and wisdom is only a psychological pleasure. But the soul has no enjoyment here.

What is Olam Haba? It is the situation where the soul will have an enjoyment: a natural enjoyment that results from its activity. But the ultimate enjoyment of the soul is known only by God: “No eye has seen it except for You, God” (Isaiah 64:3).

God created man in a way that our greatest psychological enjoyment is derived from pursuing wisdom. This is so that the soul functions and achieves happiness in this physical existence. But that is not the real enjoyment. Furthermore, wisdom is always available—it is very intense and attracts our energies. A person can labor physically all day, but if he does not pursue wisdom he has not tapped his great reservoir of energy. God designed man such that we derive our greatest satisfaction through our involvement in wisdom. Even when he is ill, a person can apply his energies to wisdom. Einstein said, “I was happy when I was ill, for I was able to think, as I was undisturbed.” A person’s nature is created in such a way that he can practically always think [and enjoy wisdom]. Man always achieves the greatest satisfaction when he perceives the world of wisdom. So, in earthly life, a life of wisdom is the most pleasurable one. But this great enjoyment is not on par in any way with Olam Haba. 

The reason Chazal say that enjoyment in Olam Haba is infinitely greater than earthly pleasure is for another reason. Since the soul is of a different quality, its enjoyments must be of a different quality. The enjoyment that the eternal entity—the soul—has must, by definition, be superior to physical/psychological enjoyments. 

Furthermore, as all knowledge is filtered through the senses, the soul does not operate here in its fullest form. That is why it cannot achieve its ultimate function in this world. Even the soul of Moshe, the most perfect man, did not achieve its highest level of functioning until his death. And at that point and forward the attending enjoyment must increase, for that is when the soul functions in its fullest form.

In Sanhedrin—in one breath —Maimonides discusses our inability to know what Olam Haba is, yet he also says that perfected people have a much better idea of Olam Haba. Maimonides discusses the Messianic Era [a utopian earthy existence] and says that its primary characteristic is that people will, with little effort, attain their needs. The advantage is that a person will not worry as he does today. The natural result of the removal of these worries and stress is that one’s life is extended. Maimonides says that during that era, Olam Haba will be understood in a very strong way. However, this contradicts Maimonides’ statement that Olam Haba is known only by God.

Mishna 4:17 says that the premise of this world is a pathway to the next world. That being the case, one should spend his life pursuing wisdom to prepare for the next world. However, this contradicts another principle: One should learn Torah for its own sake, lishma:  Do not be as servants who serve the master to receive a reward (Avos 1:3).

Reward refers to Olam Haba, as Maimonides says:

The good in store for the righteous is life in the World to Come, which is a life connected with no death and a kind of good connected with no evil, such as is described in the Torah: “That it may be well with you, and you may prolong your days” (Deut. 22.7), which was traditionally deducted to mean, “That it may be well with you” in a world that is entirely good”; and that you may prolong your days”—in a world existing forever, and this is the World to Come (Hilchos Teshuvah 8:1).

Maimonides also says:

The one who worships based on love, engages himself in the study of the Torah and the observance of precepts, and follows the paths of wisdom for no other motive, neither for fear of evil nor to inherit the “good,” but he does the true thing because it is true (Hilchos Teshuvah 10:2).

That “good,” Maimonides says, is Olam Haba. Lishma refers to the good here on Earth; it does not concern itself with any future benefit. The Torah does not openly say that one should perform the mitzvos to earn Olam Haba. Learning lishma is the best life here, as the Maariv prayer states, “For [mitzvos] are your life and your length of days.” Torah and mitzvos are what give man enjoyment and satisfaction; this makes his life. And while it is true that Olam Haba will eventually come, that is not the motivation of one who worships God out of love.

The fault in serving God for a reward is that the person seeks an exchange. Such a person performs mitzvos and studies Torah to attain Olam Haba. This reflects a mindset under the influence of psychological fantasy—desiring the unknown object of the afterlife—which the person believes to be very good. This person read mishna 4:17, which says that Olam Haba is very enjoyable, and his fantasy for enjoyment has gone unchanged. Chazal say that this person operates on a low level.

In his commentary on mishna 4:17, Maimonides stated that Chazal partook of the physical world only in a measure that was indispensable to live. Otherwise, they reserved all their time and energies for the pursuit of wisdom. This approach to the physical differentiates Chazal and other perfected people from pleasure seekers. Chazal indulged only in what they needed and in nothing more. They lived with “fixed needs.” In contrast, a pleasure seeker might attain his needs [and then some] but envies a better physical object. For example, he might buy a home and then regret not having purchased a more luxurious home like the one his friend just purchased. Chazal didn’t think this way. Once they had food and shelter, their needs were addressed, and no further energies were invested in pursuit of physical concerns. This sense of fixed needs is the mark of a perfected person.

Regarding our contradiction, in so far as one does not remove himself from fantasies, his fantasy of “ultimate satisfaction” is merely converted into an Olam Haba fantasy. He is far from the truth.

Another possible life is where one perceives the world of wisdom and he understands that wisdom [universal principles and brilliant laws] is what guides the universe. He views this wisdom as the world of reality and he becomes attracted to it. This attraction to wisdom removes such a person from the desire to satisfy his psychological satisfactions, which then become insignificant to him. Wisdom becomes a lure and his mind turns solely toward seeking greater wisdom. When this person understands that the world of wisdom can be perceived to a far greater degree in Olam Haba, he is naturally attracted to the afterlife, as Maimonides says, “so that he merits eternal life”: 

The sages and the Prophets did not long for the days of Moshiach because they wanted to rule the world or because they wanted to have dominion over the non-Jews or because they wanted the nations to exalt them or because they wanted to eat, drink, and be merry. Rather, they desired [the days of Moshiach] so that they would have time for Torah and its wisdom. And there would be no one who would oppress them or force them to be idle (from Torah). This, so that they would merit the World to Come, as we have explained regarding the laws of repentance (Hilchos Malachim 12:4).

This is the proper attitude and is not considered “learning with an ulterior motivation” for a fantasy afterlife. In this case, one loves wisdom and views Olam Haba as being a state of the same pleasure of wisdom. [Such a person does not pursue an ulterior fantasy but only the very wisdom that he values.] This person learns lishma.

Olam Haba is the existence where ultimate knowledge is possible. The more one partakes of wisdom, the more his appreciation of Olam Haba is realized. This desire to unveil the true reality that is behind everything is shared by all people, not just by Chazal. The desire to perceive the ultimate wisdom is perceived by all intelligent people. And this is the desire for Olam Haba. 

One who learns Torah out of an enjoyment for that activity is on a high level. But that is not the ultimate level. This was expressed by the Epicureans, who sought pleasure and found wisdom to be the highest pleasure. However, they were still bound to seek personal satisfaction. The highest level is to seek an understanding of wisdom, not as an enjoyable thought problem [but as a curiosity for how halacha is designed, or to understand God’s justice, His nature, or His intended perfections for the mitzvos. In this capacity, one does not seek a psychological pleasure of a mind game or a thought problem, but the self is lost, and one is absorbed in pondering and thinking about the world of wisdom].

A distinction can be seen between one who seeks knowledge for psychological pleasure and the perfected person who wishes to uncover truth. The former will not pain himself in his studies, as this detracts from his desired psychological pleasures. [When the going gets tough, he abandons his studies for relaxation and ease.] But the latter will endure stress [if he must conduct lengthy research and memorize a lot of information] and pain, for he is drawn to understand, even if it causes him stress. His appreciation for wisdom makes him ignore the psychological pain. This is the soul at work.

Bechira exists only so far as engaging the soul [over the emotions] to function. But the soul’s function [itself] does not involve bechira. Therefore, whatever that function is of the soul, it cannot change, which is why there is no way to change when in Olam Haba. Bechira refers to selecting where to disperse psychological energy, which is only a function on Earth. But there is no psychological energy in Olam Haba, which is an existence where the soul follows that which captivated it. That is why Olam Haba is devoid of bechira—it is impossible to have bechira in Olam Haba. 

Maimonides concludes his comments on mishna 4:17 by saying that in studying Koheles, one discovers the most prevalent idea in the book. The ultimate fantasy is that of immortality. This fantasy is not what the soul seeks, but it is what the physical/psychological man seeks. Whether one desires to be a billionaire or wishes for fame, one’s ultimate fantasy is immortality, which is unattainable. That is why people are so attracted to Olam Haba. [It appeals as if it is the promise of the immortality that everyone seeks, but Olam Haba is not what people think it is.] 

Many times, one idea or phenomenon can have two very disparate understandings. Primitive man understood the idea of contagion quite differently from modern doctors. [The former attributed mystical properties to it.] Primitive man believed the sun to be the source of all life on Earth and therefore he worshipped it. It is scientifically true that the sun’s energy is what feeds the planet, but it is a completely different idea from primitive man’s idea. The same applies to Olam Haba. Man’s primitive element finds the idea of an afterlife attractive, but the true Olam Haba is a totally different phenomenon from what primitive man thinks it is. However, people cannot distinguish between their primitive desire and reality. Judaism says that Olam Haba is different from what people think because the fantasy of immortality, which is based on earthly existence, is unrelated to Olam Haba, a metaphysical existence. In Sanhedrin, Maimonides distinguishes the primitive notion from reality.

One must know that it is prohibited to argue against a person who assumes Olam Haba to be physical. Such a person follows the mitzvos to attain his false belief in Olam Haba. But although this is not the appropriate way to worship God, we actually encourage this person to remain on this path because of the following principle: “From performing the mitzvos for the wrong reasons, one will eventually perform them for the right reasons,” (mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma). To dissuade such an erring person would destroy him, and it is prohibited to dissuade him. Judaism espouses love for mankind and allows man’s fantasies if it takes him along the correct path. Ultimately of course, one must open his mind and accept the truth.

Maimonides describes people as having the wrong view, exchanging light for darkness. They value earthly pleasure, falsely believing that those pursuing wisdom are losing the true good. People pride themselves on how much physicality they amass, when in truth, one should feel shame in valuing the physical, which requires more energy in the pursuit of that which is only temporary. A person should partake of the physical only insofar as he needs to live a life of wisdom. And the greater the person, the less he needs of the physical. That is why Maimonides cites Chazal as partaking in the physical minimally, only as much as they could not live without. But involvement in physical pursuits should not be a source of pride, as it represents man’s weakness. One should take pride in living according to a life of wisdom, but not in that which represents a corruption of the soul.