QUESTION: How is reward and punishment, Gan Eden and Gehonim to be interpreted?
THE REBBE: Just as one must use a material knife to cut bread, so also if one is walking on Broadway, he must summon physical thoughts in order to divert the evil inclination. At such a time, philosophical expositions of Gan Eden or seventh heaven would have less influence on the yetzer horah than would thoughts of Gehonim or a story with a moral. To successfully combat one’s corporeal desires, he must apply thoughts that fit his mood at the time. If one has an urge to eat a non-kosher steak, for example, an abstract discussion of religion will not spoil his appetite. He must reflect that this animal ate grass, and that fertilizer was on the grass, and similar reason to deter his lust. The same applies to other impulses—murder, theft, concupiscence, etc.—one must gear his reasoning to bringing about the undesirability of these actions, according to his own level.
Therefore, the Torah discusses reward and punishment, according to a material, and not a spiritual, aspect—you will live longer, you will have a good field, etc. The Torah is for everybody, even for lower mentalities. The greatest tzadik was at one time only a thirteen-year-old, when particularly these physical considerations are effective in restraining him from straying from the path of G-d.
The Torah was G-d’s blueprint for the Creation. We observe that the Creation consists of many levels; consequently, we must conclude that its blueprint, the Torah, also contains many degrees of explanation. For instance, “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth” has its literal meaning. A deeper interpretation is that G-d created heavenly, lofty emotions and earthly, carnal passions in the human heart. A more profound concept is that G-d created two components of the soul—one is sublime and spiritual, the other is the earthly intellect. Similarly, when the Torah speaks of the reward of long life, its first meaning is the plain one—ain mikro yotzay miday peshuto. But it also includes another meaning: Whether a person is materialistic or philosophic, proper behavior will be rewarded with a keener understanding of the world around him. Thus, every minute of his life will be “long” in the sense that it will be utilized in a more worthwhile and intelligent manner.
Similarly, all the material rewards and punishments of the Torah can be interpreted profoundly as well as simply.
QUESTION: I find that, as I enter the classroom, I am overcome with feelings of dread and trepidation as I contemplate the great responsibility of teaching G-d’s Torah. What can I do about this?
THE REBBE: The primary axiom of Judaism is that a Perfect Being created and creates everything according to His definite system and design. Nothing happens by accident; thus, for every problem there is a solution. Unequivocal cognizance of this fact vitiates despair and frustration, as G-d has given everyone the ability to complete his tasks.
On the contrary, these feelings of dread and anxiety were also created for a good purpose—to arouse one to summon all his physical and intellectual capabilities in order to arrive at a correct solution. The one who is calm and indifferent in facing his responsibilities will often be satisfied with practically any conclusion.
Moreover, these misgivings and awe are often an indication that one is progressing to a higher level. When one ascends a flight of stairs, there is always a moment when his foot is suspended in air without solid support. However, afterwards comes an inner satisfaction from the knowledge that one has elevated himself. Others may “sleep on one step” for 120 years, experiencing neither apprehension nor the “inner harmony” that comes with a feeling of accomplishment.
Question: I am a college student, and I come from a small community, so I never had a Jewish education. I find Reform Judaism too simplified and liberal, but I cannot follow the Orthodox services. What should I do?
The Rebbe: The stories in the Bible and Talmud apply to every generation. When the Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva was forty years old and supporting a family when he started with “Alef-Bais,” and yet became one of the greatest rabbis of all time, it is to teach us that even with no previous Jewish education, one with a determined will can achieve even more than those who started before him. The mishna in Avos states: “Lo alecha hamalacha ligmor,” you are not expected to learn everything at once. A little bit each day, as long as you stay on the right track. Begin with the English translations of the Chumash, Kitzer Shulchan Aruch (Jewish laws), and Ain Yaakov (legends of the Talmud). Avoid the complacency of thinking you have attained the summit of your spiritual endeavors, but be constantly aware that there is more to strive for tomorrow, and G-d will give you strength. My major objection to Reform and Conservative Judaism is that they compromise their ideals; they make it easy for one to attain the pinnacle of Judaism, precluding further self-improvement. Orthodox Judaism requires continued spiritual progress, a little bit each day of one’s life.
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