Jan. 1st, 2017

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As you teach, you learn...

I have just started, what I hope will be an ongoing project at least for a few months, of learning regularly with my youngest son.
We are learning "Middos" - good attributes of behaviour - and reading Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishna that records the "Ethics of the Fathers".

When I read the first verses with my son, all sorts of questions came to my mind that I had never noticed before, and I want to blog about them here.
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Ethics of the fathers - Mishna Avot Chapter 1

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא, שנאמר ועמך כולם צדיקים, לעולם יירשו ארץ, נצר מטעי מעשה ידי להתפאר.

Kol yisrael yesh lahem cheilek l’olam habah, she-neh-eh-mar, v’ameich koolam tzaddeekeem, l’olam yeershoo ah-retz, neitzer mah-tah-ai, mah-ah-say yah-dai, l’heet-pah-air.

All Israel have a share in the World To Come, as it is stated (Isaiah 60:21): ‘And your people are all tzadikim (righteous).’ They shall inherit the land forever. They are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a)

The tradition is to open each chapter with the passage above which derives the [at first glance] very comforting idea [for Jews] that every Jew has a portion in the World to Come. A birthright, apparently.

This teaching is not part of Mishna Avot but is taken from elsewhere in the Mishna [Sanhedrin 11:1] and it uses a verse from Isaiah 60:23 to argue every Jew has a part in the World to Come.

My Questions:

1. Why is this added here?
2. What is meant by "The World to come" ?
3. How can one possibly say that ALL of the Jewish people are righteous?
4. What is meant by this "portion" in the World to come?
5. And how does the Mishna derive that conclusion from the verse in Isaiah which seems to be saying something totally different

I have been looking for answers:

1. "Why is this added here?" - I don't know - let's come back to that.

2. "What is meant by "The World to come" ?" - I always thought the World to Come meant Heaven / the afterlife - however the Lubavitche Rebbe argues that here specifically it means the life on earth after the resurrection of the dead. See http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/145229/jewish/Part-I.htm
because those who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead forfeit it, according to the following section in Mishnah Sanhedrin. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/sanhedrin11.html
Well, there goes my portion, I guess!

3. Clearly all peoples and nations have good people and bad people [and in-between people]. one reading of Isaiah would be "IF your people are all of them righteous THEN they will inherit the land forever" - a bit less reassuring, but nevertheless consistent with many other conditional promises in the Torah.

However this does not work so well with the context in Isaiah and certainly not with the interpretative reading in the Mishna. Reading the Radak's commentary on the verse in Isaiah he says that this means that in this ideal future time of which Isaiah speaks, God will have "refined the people of Israel like silver" Zecharia 13:9, leaving only the righteous surviving in Jerusalem!

A far less comforting thought...!

4. "What is meant by this "portion" in the World to come?" - One explanation is that it is a plot of land [maybe a metaphorical plot of land]

You have your plot of land but how good it is will depend on how you work on it.

5. "And how does the Mishna derive this...from the verse?"
- le'olam in the verse appears to mean "forever"
- the Mishna puns on this word to take it to mean "for the World [to come]" then the "land" in the verse is taken to be a plot of land - a portion that each person will inherit.
And of course the World to Come is well known to be for "the Righteous" so it all reads very nicely in this novel interpretation.

This brings us back to Q1. "Why is this added here?" at the beginning of the study of the chapters of Avot which deal with ethical behaviour.

I think it is saying - each of you has your metaphorical plot of land for the next World - but if you neglect to work on your character, ethics and good deeds in this life, your reward will be less in the word to come - your plot will be mangy and depleted. Work on character, ethics and good deeds contained in these chapters and your "plot of land" in the World to Come will be a rich and fertile one - you will reap your reward.

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