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Rabbi Ya’akov’s lesson seems fairly simplistic and obvious. The present plane of existence is merely preparatory for the world to come. Certainly, anyone subscribing to a G-D-centric world view would place the emphasis on the plane of eternal life, the world to come and not on the transitory existence bounded at either end by birth and death.
Is Rabbi Ya’akov signature teaching something so axiomatic or is there something deeper.
Arguably Rabbi Ya’akov’s observation is based on a point of view that would emphasize this world over the world to come. After all “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth? (Tehilim 30:10), ” and “The dead cannot praise the Lord, . . . .”(Tehilim 115:17) It would seem according to Tehilim with death the opportunity of D-vine worship ends. Also the description found in Devarim 30:11-14 asserts the immediacy of both Torah and Mitzvoth by not being in the heavens or across the sea.
One could conclude one should be focused on this world as this is the natural habitat for Torah and its commandments. Rabbi Ya’akov is not challenging that notion but orienting it. One’s efforts in this world are undertaken as a preparation for the world to come.
Rabbi Ya’akov offers an analogy of a foyer to a great hall where the King is found (see Rashi ZT’L ZY’A ad. loc.). The idea being whatever one does in foyer prepares one for the world to come. Two other analogies are offered to amplify Rabbi’s Ya’akov’s lesson. Rabbi Noach Chaim from Korbin ZT’L ZY’A in his anthology of Talmudic commentaries on Avoth cites Avoda Zara 3a that one who prepares for the Sabbath on Sabbath Eve eats on Sabbath . The comparison between weekdays and Sabbath is similar to the relationship between this world and the world to come. One’s efforts during the week determine the quality of one’s Sabbath experience. Additionally, as Rashi ZT’L ZY’A (20:10) notes when Sabbath arrives one’s labor must cease, one may not even think about business. Similarly one’s efforts in this world abruptly end with death, there is nothing left to do whether or not there are matters left undone. Therefore because to only way to accrue the currency that is the World to Come’s legal tender is during one’s this world lifetime.
Rabbi Moshe of Levertoiv ZT’L ZY’A in VaYgaid Moshe understands Rabbi Ya’akov’s call to prepare in this world for the world to come to emerging from darkness to light. If someone whose eyes have adjusted to darkness were suddenly to enter bright sunlight one’s eyesight would become overwhelmed. Rather to preserve one’s vision one would need to gradually and steadily become acclimated to the bright light. Similarly during one’s lifetime one should live one’s life with an eye on the world to come. The VaYagid Moshe’s understanding of the Mishna is that even in the grossly physical transient world there is an opportunity to nurture one’s awareness and sensitivity to the eternal and spiritual.
Possibly, this is the common thread between the two observations each is calling on the individual to realize there is more than just the here and now, indeed even the here and now if used as G-D has designed able to connect with the spiritual and eternal. Rabbi Ya’akov therefore is not just declaring where one’s priorities should lie but depth and breath of potential within the everyday.