No one likes final exams. And even less if it is at the moment when we are ending our days on this world. The good news is that they gave us the questions in advance. God does not like to surprise us. This Talmudic passage marks the parameters under which our lives are to be judged at the entrance to eternity. “Raba said: After leaving this world, when a person is brought to trial for the life he lived in it, he is asked in the order of this verse:
Did you conduct yourself honestly in your business?
Did you designate time on a regular basis to study the Torah?
Were you involved in raising children?
Did you work to improve the world?” Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
The first thing we are asked highlights the fact that the questions were not: “Do you believe in God?” or,” Did you fast on Yom Kippur?” The question was: “Were you honest?” Many relate being a good Jew only with the observance of mitzvoth, especially those that are highly visible, for example, to keep the Shabbat, to eat kosher or to put on tefillin in the morning. For many, these mitzvoth are enough to consider someone as a good Jew or not. But being honest in business is something that cannot be seen by the naked eye. The main point of this passage from the Talmud is that it puts ethics at the center of Judaism. God’s first concern is not whether the person believes in Him or whether he scrupulously takes care not to eat chametz on Passover. He is more concerned with whether the person was “a mensch,” an honorable human being.
The second question deals with studying the Torah, specially the commandments, the mitzvoth, that define how a person must behave with his neighbor and that are the foundation of Jewish ethics. That is why it is so important to study Torah. The Torah teaches us how to be ethical and how to behave as a member of a social group, in particular the Jewish people. But studying the Torah is more than memorizing the mitzvoth, it is, ultimately, understanding human nature, especially understanding yourself. Not studying Torah means not developing your own self and not growing intellectually and spiritually, not doing it, is like having wasted your life.
The third question concerns our children. I.L.Peretz, the great Jewish writer, said: “Children constitute the eternity of man.” Raising children is the way to pass our values and our hopes for a better world to the next generations.
The fourth question is working to try to redeem our world. It is the vision that the Jewish people are an integral part of all humanity and that seeking “Tikun Olam”, repairing the world, to the extent of the potential of each person, is an obligation for all. Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obliged to complete the entire work, but you are also not free to give up on it.”
In brief, your answers to the four questions portray your actions towards your neighbor, yourself, your family and the world. We are given the questions in advance, so that we can answer them in the best possible way, before taking the exam.
By Marcos Gojman.
Bibliography: Joseph Telushkin “Jewish Wisdom”, Benjamin Blech “Understanding Judaism”.