In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Lech Lecha, God told Abraham (15:1) “Do not fear, I am your Shield, you have a lot of reward.” Rashi explains that Abraham was fearful that the fact that he survived the great battles he had fought served as a reward for his good deeds and caused his merits to be used up in this world. Therefore, God was reassuring him that his merits had not vanished, and indeed he had a lot of reward to look forward to benefiting from in the World to Come.
This is a most frightening anecdote. If Abraham, our great patriarch, who served God with utmost loyalty and achieved levels of righteousness beyond our comprehension, was concerned that his merits were diminished by the fact that his life was saved, how much more so are we to be concerned about our merits being preserved for the Next World!
The fact that Abraham was concerned means there must have been real basis for worry, despite his high level of devotion in serving God. This means that even if we have accumulated great deeds in our lifetime and did many Mitzvos (Torah commandments), there is no guarantee that we will have great reward in store for us in the World to Come. A person can be rewarded in this world instead, thereby diminishing his merits.
As Rabbi Yisroel Salanter put it: This world is an exorbitant hotel. The price for amenities in this world is very steep. A person can consume eternal reward for a Mitzvah he did, just by eating a good dish! We don’t deserve anything from God, and any little bit of enjoyment can potentially deduct from the eternal pleasure we wish to have in the Next World.
This leads us to ask, what can we do to ensure our merits are preserved? What can we do to prevent our merits from being used up while enjoying the amenities this world has to offer?
The following parable illustrates Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s advice: There were once two friends, Moshe and Dovid, who started a furniture business together. At the end of each month, the partners met to review the past month’s business records and discuss their plans going forward. One time, the two met at the end of a successful month of business. As they were reviewing the books together, Moshe turned to Dovid and asked, “I don’t understand. What are the losses marked here all about?”
“Oh,” said Dovid, “Those are discounts I gave to poor families who couldn’t afford the retail price.”
Moshe was unimpressed and said to Dovid, “Charity is great. You can give as much charity as you like from your own money. But this is business. We can’t offer discounts to anyone who is impoverished.”
At the end of the next month, once again the two sat down together to review the records, and this time Dovid took note of losses from sales he could not explain. He turned to Moshe to see if he knew what they were about, and Moshe answered, “Sure. These are discounts I approved.”
Dovid could not contain his confusion and said to Moshe, “What’s going on here? Didn’t you just tell me last month that business is business and we can’t allow for discounts?!”
“You don’t understand.” said Moshe, “This is business. These aren’t discounts I offered out of feelings of mercy. These discounts were given exclusively to big customers with large orders. These discounts were investments which ensured we made lucrative deals and will bring these customers back in the future to earn us much more than the petty loss of the discounts.”
Similarly, explains Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, this world is only expensive as long as we are looking to enjoy ourselves for our own sake. When we are focused purely on our own pleasure, there is a price to pay, and we can’t expect to be recipients of free handouts. But if we turn ourselves into “God’s employees,” then these benefits turn into God’s “business expenses.”
If we devote ourselves to serving God and our focus on improving our quality of life is for the purpose of serving God in the best way possible, with happiness and a good frame of mind, then the pleasure we enjoy takes on a whole new perspective. We are no longer lounging at a luxurious hotel, but employees who the Boss is interested in treating for the sake of having His “business” thrive.
This concept should not be taken lightly. We naturally like to assume that we have accumulated many merits which will be waiting for us to reap great reward from in the Next World. But it’s not that simple. There is no guarantee that we are not using up these merits with our enjoyment in our lifetime. In order to preserve our merits, we must stay focused as being God’s “employees” in this world, and not just looking to fulfill our desires for our own sake. By turning the amenities we enjoy into “God’s business expenses,” we can hope to truly enjoy the eternal reward we yearn for, in the Next World.
Parshas Noach by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (email@example.com)