While much of today’s daf (Shabbat 151b) considers the halachot pertaining to what may and may not be done for the dead on Shabbat, it also includes various philosophical teachings relating to the preciousness of life and our need to maximise the opportunities that we have in life to do good and to help others. As Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar states (as explained by Rashi):
‘Wherever you can find people [in life that you can help] – do so! [In fact, seize the opportunity to help others] while you have the resources to do so and while [you are] still [blessed with life and have the ability] to give [whatever is] in your hand, for even Shlomo HaMelech has written in his wisdom [in Kohelet 12:1]: “Appreciate your vigour in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” – which refers to the Messianic era when we will neither have the ability to earn merit [through our good deeds] or be faulted [by our failure to do good deeds].’
According to this teaching from Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar, our understanding of the Messianic era as a period where we will not be able to perform good deeds for others should drive us to maximise the opportunities that we have in life to help others.
However, the Gemara then cites an alternative view of Shmuel who interprets Devarim 15:11 to mean that poverty will continue to exist in the Messianic era and that ‘there will be no difference between this world and the Messianic Era except for [Jewish independence from] the dominion of [foreign] kingdoms’, and by citing this teaching in opposition to Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar, it would appear that the Gemara is suggesting that Shmuel’s alternative understanding of the Messianic Era places less pressure on the expectation for each of us to address and solve the social issues that we encounter in our lives.
As should be clear, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar and Shmuel radically differ on their understanding of the Messianic era. However, where they seem to agree is that our conception of the Messianic era should inform how we live.
Until around 25 years ago I also believed this to be the case, and I recall how some of my teachers would often expend much time trying to present various views about the Messianic Era because they too believed that our conception of the Messianic era should inform how we live.
But then I read an enlightening interview with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz (1921-2009) – otherwise known as ‘The Bostoner Rebbe’ – which had a significant impact on my outlook on this issue, and given the profound wisdom that he shared, I would like to quote him here (nb. this interview can be found in Joshua Haberman’s ‘The God I Believe In’ pp. 14-6):
“..Life and afterlife are two different planes and the person who is alive cannot understand dead and the dead cannot understand life…Life is not meant to investigate what is going to happen afterwards. If you spend time on that which happens afterwards, you’ll miss the opportunities that are here in life. There is so much to do while you are alive that while thinking about what is going to happen afterwards, you will be missing great opportunities of what is happening here at the moment. The greatest moments are the moments that a person is alive… One hour of this world is worth more than all of the hereafter…This is the way we see it and investigating and thinking about the hereafter is not really our business… What is going to be happening afterwards, we shall experience when we get there… We believe in the Messiah and each day await his coming. But there is a difference between believing in the coming of the Messiah and what we must do about it. Do you stand by the front door and wait for the Messiah instead of doing the job you are supposed to do? Just as we must fully live, even while believing in the hereafter, so, must we go on working even while waiting for the Messiah. Get yourself ready to be worthy of the coming of the Messiah and expect that he will come because of what you are doing…If we try to perfect ourselves, if we do what we are supposed to do, if we make the world a better place to work or live in, then the Messiah will come because are deserving of a better world.’