The Hafetz Haim’s Theory of Relativity
It is customary during the weeks between Pesach and Shabuot to study Pirkeh Abot, the beautiful collection of profound, ethical and religious teachings by our Sages. We traditionally introduce the study of Pirkeh Avot with the famous Mishna in Masechet Sanhedrin (10:1) which establishes, "Kol Yisrael Yesh Lahem Helek La’olam Ha’ba" – "All Jews have a share in the world to come." The Mishna bases this axiom on the verse in Book of Yeshayahu (60:21), "Ve’amech Kulam Sadikim Le’olam Yiyrshu Aretz" – "and your nation, they are all righteous; they shall forever inherit the land."
It seems that the Mishna here interprets the phrase "Le’olam Yiyrshu Aretz" – "they shall forever inherit the land" – as referring to the world to come, thus proving that all members of our nation will receive a share in the next world. We must ask, however, how the word "Aretz" could possibly be used to refer to Olam Ha’ba (the world to come). The word "Aretz" means "land," referring to our physical earth. Why did the Mishna interpret "Aretz" in this verse to mean the next world? This seems especially difficult according to the famous view of the Rambam, that "Olam Ha’ba" is an entirely spiritual reality which will be experienced purely as souls, without any physical properties. How can such an existence be referred to with the term "Aretz"?
The Hafetz Haim (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) once explained the special value of Torah observance in our time by telling the story of a hard-working baker, who was approached one day by his Rabbi. The Rabbi wanted to know how business was going.
"It’s going very well, Rabbi," the baker happily replied. "I sell one thousand rolls a day."
But he then somberly added, "The only problem, though, is that when you sell a thousand rolls, you get a thousand complaints."
He explained that all his customers have complaints. Either the roll’s shape isn’t quite right, or it’s a bit burnt on one side, or not baked enough, too hard, too soft, too doughy, too sweet, not sweet enough, or who knows what else.
Sometime later, World War I broke out, and, as always happened during wartime, conditions in the area became very difficult.
The Rabbi happened to cross paths with this baker, and again asked how his business was going.
"It’s the same, Rabbi," he said. "I’m still selling a thousand rolls a day – but this time, without any complaints!"
The baker explained that during wartime, people are just happy to get their hands on some bread. When rations are scarce, any edible bread will do. Only during peacetime did the townspeople make a fuss if the bread was too much this and not enough that. But in times of war, when bread was not easily accessible, they were thrilled with whichever rolls they were able to obtain.
The Hafetz Haim said that Hashem approaches our Misvot the way those townspeople approached bread. During "peacetime," when performing Misvot was not terribly difficult, Hashem was "fussy," so-to-speak. He demanded perfection, and was not satisfied with deficient Misvot. In our generation, however, when we are at "war" against the forces of impurity, when Satan has come at us with full strength, presenting us with enormous spiritual challenges that were unknown in previous generations, Hashem is "happy" with whatever Misvot He can get. We cannot perform Misvot of the same quality as the Misvot performed by our ancestors generations ago. But our Misvot are, in a sense, infinitely more precious – for precisely that reason. The very fact that we make an effort to study Torah and perform Misvot in our day, despite the overbearing pressures, lures and temptations that we face, is remarkable. Hashem lovingly accepts and cherishes each and every act, imperfect as it is, recognizing the difficulty and hardship that is entailed.
We might call the Hafetz Haim’s insight the religious version of the Theory of Relativity. He teaches us that the value of a Misva is relative to the conditions under which it was performed. Our Misvot are assessed not in absolute terms, but in relative terms. Even though our Misvot are not performed with the same meticulousness, intention or purity of heart as those performed by our righteous forebears, nevertheless, they are worth even more than our forebears’ Misvot – because of the infinitely more challenging conditions in which we perform our Misvot.
This, then, might be the meaning of the verse cited by the Mishna.
The word "Ve’amech" refers to the Jewish People in periods of decline, when we are incapable of rising to the levels achieved by earlier generations. The prophet tells us that even in such periods, we are all "Sadikim," struggling as we do to continue performing Misvot, and "Le’olam Yiyrshu" – we will be worthy of a portion in the eternal world, specifically because "Aretz," because we are submerged in a decadent, immoral society. Since we persist in our attempt to serve Hashem despite our living in the "Aretz," in a time of spiritual emptiness, we are deserving of great reward. Our hard work and effort to connect ourselves to Torah in our time period, when we are tempted by countless distractions at all times, and when making this connection is thus so terribly difficult, make our Misvot especially precious and valuable, and especially beloved by Hashem.