The Meaning of a Life Tragically Cut Short Part 1
By Rabbi Asher Resnick
Overview: In part 1 of this 2 part series, Rabbi Resnick brings different sources explaining how shleimus (completion) is achieved in a life of few years versus a life of many years. In part 2 Rabbi Resnick addresses the tragedy of those who pass away young.

The Meaning of a Life Tragically Cut Short –  Part 1

The Torah speaks about three different offerings — the animal offering (most expensive), the bird offering (less expensive), and the grain offering (least expensive). Despite the many differences between them, all three are equally described as — “Ishei reiyach nichoach — a fire offering and pleasing aroma” — since G-d commanded them and His will was fulfilled. The final mishnah in Menachot (13:11) explains that this teaches us about all of the offerings we bring: Sh’echad hamarbeh v’echad hamamit, u’bilvad she’yechavein adam et da’ato (or libo) la’Shamayim —Whether a lot or whether a little, [the key is] that one direct their mind and their heart towards Heaven.”

The Gemara (Menachot 104b) describes the more expensive korbanot as being offered by an adam (person) (Vayikra 1:2), while the least expensive mincha was offered by a nefesh (soul) (Vayikra 2:1). This teaches us that Hashem accepts the poor person’s simpler offering as if he has offered up his very soul.

Rashi (Brachot 17a) explains that the s’char (spiritual benefit) of one who serves Hashem with a small gift is just as great as the s’char of one who serves Him with a large gift, as long as libo la’Shamayim (his heart is towards Heaven) — one’s sincere intent is to serve Hashem to the best of one’s ability.

This principle is really fundamental to all of our avodat Hashem (service of G-d) — in every aspect of it, the preeminent value is eichut — quality, not kamut — quantity.

This is particularly significant when it comes to one who, tragically, passed away young. Whether one was granted many years or few, the essential issue is how one was able to “direct their mind and their heart towards Heaven.” With an elevated kavanah (focus and intention), then even one who was granted less years will still have lived a meaningful life.

Four different explanations of: “Whether a lot or whether a little, [the key is] that we direct our mind and our heart towards Heaven.”

1) G-d demands from people only what they are capable of. Both the ribui (abundance) and the miyut (limitation) are decrees from Heaven, while “she’yechavein libo la’Shamayim” (directing our heart towards Heaven) is a choice. Therefore, when the ribui and the miyut come with equal directing of one’s heart towards Heaven, one’s s’char (spiritual benefit) is identical as well, even if one person actually did do more.

Sources — Rabeinu Yona, Sha’arei Ha’avoda (sha’ar aleph); Sefer HaLikutim on Parshat Bereshit; Mishnah Brurah (siman alephse’if gimmel), Magen Avraham, Tosfot Yom Tov to Avot 2:16, Magen Avraham on Orach Chaim 1:6, and Pirkei Avot 2:9.

2) With proper quality, quantity is almost irrelevant. In fact, an abundance of quantity in one’s relationship with Hashem can sometimes even impede the quality of the relationship (and one’s values). By definition, our efforts in avodat Hashem (service of G-d) have no significance apart from being a fulfillment of ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will). As long as our focus is on quantity, we are inherently limited.

Rachmana liba ba’eih — Hashem desires the heart. While the generation of Rava was greater in Torah, the generation of Rebbe Yehuda had a closer connection to Hashem. The key is what is in one’s heart. The Maharsha explained that without devotion in our heart, our intellect won’t lead us to truth.

Sources — Maharal (Chidushei AgadotMenachot); Michtav M’Eliyahu (14–16); Magen Avot l’Rashbatz (Pirkei Avot 3:15); Chatam Sofer on Shavuot 15a. Extra Sources  Sanhedrin 106b, Michtav M’Eliyahu (123–131), Sfat Emet, Parshat Vayikra — “u’bilvad she’yechavein libo la’Shamayim.”

3) Strong quality can actually transform a small quantity into a large amount. The acquisition of the mitzvot is possible only through ameilut (toil and effort). “Yafeh pa’am achat b’tza’ar m’meah pa’amim b’lo tza’ar — One time with difficulty and effort is more valuable than 100 times without difficulty and effort.” Even minimal difficulty and effort will multiply the mitzvot and their s’char (spiritual benefit). [And] every additional level of tza’ar will continue to turn even regular mitzvot into very great ones. Enthusiasm for mitzvot also gives us siyata d’Sh’maya (Heavenly assistance) to then be able to reach lofty heights.

In Olam Haba, we will only have the Torah [and mitzvot] that we toiled in, not what we simply acquired through our inborn abilities and intelligence. Sources — Hakdama to Chovot Halevavot (pg. 39), Michtav M’Eliyahu (13–25), Sheim m’Shmuel — Shemot.

4) How is it possible for the the mamit (who did less) to be equal to the marbeh (who did more)? It is obvious that the poor person would also rather bring a nicer animal offering, but he simply can’t afford it. Therefore, Hashem combines his positive intention with his [more limited] action, similar to one who is physically prevented from doing a mitzvah. As the Gemara Shabbat (63a) explains — “Even if one intends  to do a mitzvah, but is then prevented from doing it, it is considered as if he had actually done it.” The essential requirement is — “u’bilvad she’yechavein libo la’Shamayim — that one direct his heart towards Heaven.”

Our desire to fulfill the mitzvot is considered like an actual deed and is able to combine with [even] a small [physical] action, as we say — “machshava tova mitztarefet l’ma’aseh — A good thought can combine together with the [physical] act.” If Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) tell us that — “hirhurei aveirah kashyan m’aveirah — the thoughts of a transgression are more destructive than the transgression [itself],” all the more so can we say the opposite — “hirhurei mitzvah k’mitzvah v’adif — the thoughts of a mitzvah are like a mitzvah, and [even] better.” Sources — Rav Raphael m’Hamburg, Marpeh LashonHakdama to Chovot Halevavot (pg. 39); Sfat Emet, Likutim on Shas — “Echad hamarbeh v’echad hamamit.

Summary of the four different understandings:

1) Hashem demands of people only what they are actually capable of.

2) As long as one has the proper eichut (quality and values), kamut (quantity) is almost irrelevant to Hashem.

3) With strong quality and values, or ameilut (dedication and hard work), a small quantity will be transformed into a large amount.

4) A limited quantity can combine with positive kavanah (intention), especially when one is unable to carry out his positive intentions.

Two understandings from Rav Zev Leff 

In terms of – “Whether a lot or whether a little” – Hashem gives every person different potentials, challenges, and tasks in this world. The evaluation is, therefore, not comparative. Everyone is rather evaluated in terms of how they did with what they were given.

And in terms of — “one direct their mind and their heart towards Heaven” – Hashem only evaluates us on our effort, which is completely in our hands, and not on the output (i.e., whether large or small) that we have no control over (but is entirely in G-d’s hands).

S’char (spiritual benefit) is according to ameilut (exertion) and quality, not quantity

Pirkei Avot (2:16, 5:22) says: “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor — It is not upon you to finish the work,” and “L’fum tza’ara agra — According to the effort and exertion is the benefit.”

The Maharal explains: This means that Torah was given for people to toil in; completing it is not the main point. And, therefore, even if one did not learn so much Torah, but he struggled with that small amount just as much as one who learned a much larger amount, he will be given the same degree of s’char. After all, we never say that a person must do more than is possible for that person to do.

Similarly, the Chasid Ya’avetz (Pirkei Avot 5:22) wrote: Speak to the hearts of those involved in Torah, and tell them — Although you may not have attained the greatest level of achievement, [remember] — echad hamarbeh v’echad hamamit — whether a lot or whether a little. You simply need to be immersed in it with all of your strength. This is in contrast to the other wisdoms in the world, where reward is never given [just] for the effort that one puts in.

In the prayer of appreciation to Hashem for Torah, when we have finished learning at the end of the day, we say: “I toil and they toil. I toil [in Torah] and receive s’char, they toil [in secular pursuits] and do not receive s’char”.

The Chafetz Chaim explained that while people in the world at large certainly do receive salaries and profit, they receive it not for the effort they exert, but rather only for their final results. When it comes to Torah, however, we receive s’char for the effort itself, independent of how successful we were.

One who passed away young can still achieve shleimut (completion)

The Maharal directly addressed the tragic case of one who passed away young:

Don’t mistakenly think that shleimut (completion or perfection) is impossible for one who was taken from this world before he or she had the opportunity to actualize their potential. One who was working towards shleimut but then died, doesn’t lose Olam Haba at all, since his inability to achieve that shleimut was completely beyond his control. As the Gemara Brachot (6a) puts it — “One who wants to do a mitzvah but is prevented from doing it, receives the s’char for this, as if he had actually done the mitzvah.” Physical obstacles are relevant only for the guf (body) in Olam Ha’zeh, not for the s’char of the neshama in Olam Haba. The neshama is, therefore, given the s’char in Olam Haba as if the person had actually done the mitzvah. (Tiferet Yisrael — Chapter 3).

The mitzvah is a purely spiritual entity, not a physical one. Therefore, if one fully intended to do a mitzvah, with a strong awareness and clarity, but was physically prevented from carrying it out, since his desire was to do the mitzvah, and only the physical component of the mitzvah was lacking, it is considered as if he had actually done it. Therefore, the s’char of the mitzvah can be given to the neshama. (Chidushei Agadot on Shabbat 63a).

One loses the s’char for a mitzvah only if it was possible to have been done, but was willfully ignored with full knowledge and awareness, since that is obviously relevant to the neshama.

There is a special quality of Yisrael which is oriented towards Olam Haba

At the end of each chapter of Pirkei Avot we have the following statement:

Amar Rebbe Chananya ben Akashya — Ratza HaKadosh Boruch Hu l’zakot et Yisrael, l’fikach hirba lahem Torah u’mitzvot (Rebbe Chananya ben Akashya said — The Holy One, Blessed be He, wanted to benefit and purify Yisrael, therefore He increased for them Torah and mitzvot), she’ne’emar (as it says in Yeshaya 42:21) — “Hashem chafeitz l’ma’an tzidko, yagdil Torah v’ya’adir — Hashem desired for the sake of the righteousness [of Yisrael] that the Torah be made great and glorious.””

The Maharal asks an obvious question on this: How are the multitude of mitzvot which Hashem gave the Jewish people a clear benefit for them? Wouldn’t it have been more logical for Hashem to have reduced the [number of] mitzvot so the [Jews] wouldn’t have to guard so many of them? The [Jews] would then be able to merit Olam Haba through this small number of mitzvot, as opposed to a large number which, it would seem, would make it [almost] impossible to properly merit Olam Haba.

The Rambam offers an answer in his commentary on the Mishnah at the end of Makkot:

A fundamental belief of the Torah is that when a person fulfills any one of the 613 mitzvot fittingly and properly, without mixing in any other kavanah (focus or intention) in the world, but rather does it [purely] from love…behold he will merit life in Olam Haba. And on this Rebbe Chananya said — Since the mitzvot are very numerous, it is [virtually] impossible that a person won’t do [at least] one of them properly and completely during his lifetime, and through the fulfillment of the action of that [single] mitzvah, his nefesh will then live [in Olam Haba].

Even so, the question of the Maharal still seems relevant. In the end, the more mitzvot there are, the greater the likelihood that one will also do more aveirot (transgressions)!

The Maharal, therefore, suggests a different approach: The significance of the large number of mitzvot is that Yisrael has an inherent level of preparation [and orientation] towards the Torah and the multitude of mitzvot that it contains. [And, independent of their ability to [actually] do any physical deeds, this is what allows them to receive schar].

He then points out: It is specifically because Yisrael has this special elevation of preparation [and orientation] towards the Torah, that those who are unable to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah, because they died as children, are still able to merit to Olam Haba. (Chapter 5).

The special quality of Yisrael, not mitzvot, prepares and orients us for Olam Haba

The Maharal wrote: Our great Sages foresaw the exile of the Jewish people and their many difficulties all throughout this long and bitter period. They arranged [the preface to the mishnayot of Pirkei Avot] to console their hearts, and so they should know their own greatness and elevation…Yisrael should take pleasure in their portion and in their ultimate successes. They therefore began [each chapter of Pirkei Avot] with —

Kol Yisrael yeish lahem chelek l’olam haba — All of Israel have a portion in Olam Haba.” This is not [referring] to s’char (the benefit) of mitzvot at all, but rather to the essential creation [of Yisrael] that had been formed by G-d.

Since the Jewish people are referred to as “G-d’s [own] handiwork” (Yeshaya 60:21), they have a great elevation, and are deserving of Olam Haba. The Gemara (Perek ChelekSanhedrin 110b) presents a number of opinions as to when a young child [is able to have a portion in] Olam Haba:

From the time of birth, From when he or she can speak, From the time of conception, From the time of milah (circumcision) [for a boy] and From the time he or she says “amen.”

This shows that it is the inherent creation of Yisrael, that they are “neitzer mata’ei — the sapling that Hashem planted,” which [makes] them fit for Olam Haba, and not any [actual] mitzvot or physical actions.

The Maharal [emphasizes again] at the end of Chapter 58 — “Olam Haba has absolutely no requirement for the [actual] performance of the mitzvot.” (Derech Chaim, Reish Perek, Pirkei Avot).

More mitzvot (i.e., the special quality of Yisrael) helps to prepare and orient us for Olam Haba

The Maharal continues: Our preparation [and orientation] is towards a Torah filled with large numbers of mitzvot, and, therefore, a zechut (merit) which is enormous. This eliminates the difficulty that whatever gain we have from the increased number of mitzvot we would lose with the potential for greater numbers of aveirot (transgressions).

We learn a fundamental principle from here. We would have thought that s’char (benefit) in Olam Haba is given [exclusively] in terms of effort, hard work, and standing up to the challenges of this world. And, according to this understanding, there would be no possibility for a child [who passed away] to get to Olam Haba, since he or she would necessarily be lacking in all of these aspects.

S’char in Olam Haba is rather a function of the compatibility that exists between a person and Olam Haba. Since Olam Haba is an olam ruchani (spiritual world), and one who toils in Torah and mitzvot is able to become an adam ruchani (spiritual person), there is necessarily a compatibility between that person and Olam Haba. That type of a person is, therefore, able to [have a portion in] Olam Haba. Of course, the more that one develops and elevates oneself, the greater will be their compatibility to Olam Haba, and the greater will be their portion in Olam Haba. Therefore, even a child who dies young can merit to existence in Olam Haba. Since this child is called “Yisrael,” and within his soul there is an inherent preparation and orientation towards Torah and mitzvot, even this child can consequently be [counted among] the b’nei adam ruchni’im (spiritual people) that are particularly compatible with Olam Haba, and will be able to enter its gates.

And since mitzvot cleanse and purify us, there will be more purification with many mitzvot than with fewer mitzvot. The essential [reason] for the giving of Torah and mitzvot is to provide physical actions and deeds that will purify our physical nature to be pure and transcendent. Otherwise, as the possuk in Kohelet (3:19) says —

Motar ha’adam min habehemah ayin — There will be no elevation at all for a person over an animal.”

It should be clear and obvious, therefore, that the multitude of mitzvot are [exclusively] a merit for a person. Hashem wants to help us just like a father that chastises and reproves his child for his own good. And even if the child would say that he doesn’t desire this, the father will still try to assist him, even against his will. As the verse in Devarim (8:5) says –

V’yadata im levavecha, ki ka’asher y’yaseir ish et b’no, Hashem Elokecha m’yasreka — And you should know with your heart, that just like a parent challenges and chastises his child, G-d your L-rd challenges and chastises you.” And He, therefore, gives him a yoke of [many] mitzvot in order to purify him more. (Sof Perek — Pirkei Avot).

Originally published here.

Read part 2 here.

Rabbi Asher Resnick
Rabbi Asher Resnick was born and raised in LA, and graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology. He received rabbinic ordination from Aish HaTorah and the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. He served as a senior lecturer at the Institute of Jewish Legal and Medical Ethics in San Francisco, and at the Aish HaTorah Branch in New York. Rabbi Resnick is currently one of the Educational Coordinators of Aish’s Executive Learning Center. He’s also a senior training lecturer for Aish HaTorah’s Rabbinical Ordination program. As a close student of the late Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l, he learned a special skill in addressing fundamental issues in Judaism, as well as in bringing classical texts to life. He is now bringing the clarity he has developed over his past thirty-five years of experience in teaching, writing, and training other teachers, to the wider Jewish world.