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Collect Merits, Not Assets

As my father’s yartzeit nears, I think back to last November when my then 3-year old daughter asked, “Where is Saba?” As is the Jewish way, I answered her question with one of my own: “Do you remember how come you couldn’t come to my wedding to Mommy?” I asked. “Because I was still in shamayim,” she responded. To which I replied: “That’s where Saba is now. When babies are born, they come down from shamayim. But after many years, Hashem misses them and wants them to come home. So he brings them back to shamayim.”

A simplistic answer adequate for a child who misses her grandfather, but in reality, the journey of the soul from shamayim, to human form, and back again is a fundamental article of our faith. Every morning we say the bracha of “Elokai neshama” in which we acknowledge that “Hashem, you implanted a soul within me, and in the future, You will take it back.”

Every journey has a purpose – to get from point A to point B. No one wanders aimlessly. So if life is a journey of the soul, what is its purpose? As a mourner more prone to introspection, I contemplated this question, and found meaningful answers in the words of our sages.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch teaches that the purpose of life is moral perfection insofar as Hashem judges the worth of a human being solely by the moral level he has attained. Achieving moral perfection, Rav Hirsch explains, is no different than mastering a musical instrument. Just as, after decades of practice, a highly accomplished musician plays his chosen instrument without a single note being off, the righteous individual has perfected the art of making correct choices — “striking the proper chord” — when confronting any dilemma in life.

Interestingly, Rav Hirsch contends that the process of moral perfection begins at birth when, as infants, we demand instant gratification of our needs without caring whether those demands impose hardship on others. However, as we mature into toddlers and then progress to early childhood followed by adolescence and finally adulthood, we slowly learn (under the guidance of our parents and teachers) to exercise self-control, and become sensitive to the needs of others even when they clash with our own. Rav Hirsch calls this learning the art of being good, and says it is all about constant practice making proper choices (consistent with Torah values) over many decades so that we are continually refining our ability to act righteously even when it conflicts with our desires, and resist what is wrong even when it tempts our senses.

The notion that the journey of our soul involves perfecting our moral choices is echoed by Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu where he introduces the concept of the “bechira point.” The bechira point represents the area in an individual’s free will at a certain stage of spiritual growth where the forces between choosing good and bad (i.e., the yetzer tov and yetzer hara) are evenly balanced. To understand the concept, it helps to examine hypotheticals above and below the bechira point. For example, if one were to ask a law-abiding citizen to rob a bank -- and assure them there was zero risk of getting caught (so the fear of incarceration is not a disincentive) -- the response (I would hope) would still be “absolutely not” since robbery is such an immoral act so far below their bechira point that the prospect of the riches they might secure does not override their realization of its wickedness. Conversely, were one to ask that same individual to awaken every night to recite Tikkun Chatzot (a midnight prayer to mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash), they might respond that such righteous behavior is beyond their capabilities at this time – above their bechira point.

Instead, a challenge at this individual’s bechira point might be resisting the urge to listen to lashon hara. The forces at play are evenly balanced – the intense curiosity to hear a “juicy” story is offset by the knowledge that it would be wrong to listen to derogatory comments about another person.

According to Rabbi Dessler, making the right choice at that moment — in our example, not listening to lashon hara — has the effect of slightly raising one’s bechira point so that the next time the temptation arises it will be slightly easier to resist. Over time, the benefit of making correct choices — one-by-one, day-by-day — accumulates so that, like slowly climbing a ladder, one’s bechira point eventually rises to a level where choices that formerly presented a challenge are now so easy to make that it is hard to imagine a time when they posed a dilemma. This, according to Rav Dessler, is the path to moral perfection.

If, according to Rav Hirsch, Rav Dessler and others, the journey of the soul is about continually perfecting our choices then it behooves us to search for guidance about how to make those choices.  Our Torah sources offer numerous insights on the subject. But can we extract a single principle from those sources that can reliably guide us irrespective of the dilemma we are confronting? A pithy rule of thumb that can help us make the right choices time and time again by reinforcing the values we need to prioritize? I believe the answer is yes.

Every day after davening in a mourner’s household, we recite perek 49 in Tehillim. Verse 17-18 state:

Fear not when a man grows rich, when he increases the splendor of his house. For upon his death he will not take anything, his splendor will not descend after him.”

Sharing a similar sentiment is mishna 9 of perek 6 of Pirkei Avot where the story is told of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma who declined an offer of a million gold coins, and precious stones and pearls, to be the spiritual leader of a community that he surmised was not a makom Torah. The mishna explains why Rabbi Yose prioritized his Torah learning over material wealth: “in the hour of a man’s final departure, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls accompany the man, but rather Torah and good deeds alone.”

These two sources teach a clear message – in our physical world, we have the opportunity to accumulate both physical assets and spiritual merits. But when we die, only our spiritual merits will accompany us to olam haba, while the physical assets must remain behind. As Rav Nachman of Breslov has observed – man’s relationship with his physical assets is never permanent – either the assets leave him, or he leaves the assets. But our relationship with our Torah learning and good deeds is eternal.

I humbly submit that the emphasis in these sources on prioritizing spiritual merits over material assets can be formulated into a simple maxim that can reliably help us make correct choices whenever confronted with a moral dilemma that challenges our yetzer hara: “collect merits, not assets.” That is, when facing a challenge at one’s bechira point pause to consider what choice will increase your eternal spiritual merits, and what choice will increase your temporary material assets (or any other benefit that cannot accompany you to the next world).

Let us illustrate application of the proposed guideline – “collect merits, not assets” – with a simple real-life example. Employees who work at large companies are frequently tempted to pilfer office supplies that are needed at home. After all, is a large corporation going to miss a ream of copy paper or a bunch of pens? But as small as the quantity is, it is still theft, and thus diminishes our spiritual merits even as it saves us a few dollars in this world. That choice sounds easy enough to make. However, consider business contexts in which the sums at stake (and thus the temptations) are far greater. Keeping the guideline “collect merits, not assets” in mind should compel G-d fearing individuals to consider that whatever assets (however substantial) they may temporarily gain (in this world) from dishonest conduct will come at the expense of their eternal merits.

Our maxim can also provide guidance outside of financial contexts. Consider the earlier example of listening to loshon hara. Consciously weighing the fleeting satisfaction one feels when hearing gossip against the eternal spiritual demerit caused by listening to loshon hara can help one make the right choice (indeed, when listening to (or speaking) lashon hara one does not even accumulate any assets, and so the correct choice should be even easier to make!).

Of course, it is not always easy to make the correct choice, especially when the choice exists at our bechira point where the pull of the yetzer tov and yetzer hara is evenly balanced, as Rav Dessler explains. But if we accustom ourselves to pausing and thinking — “collect merits, not assets” — every time we confront a difficult choice, then at least we have a concrete principle at hand to point us in the right direction.

Some might misconstrue the philosophy of “collect merits, not assets” as discouraging the accumulation of wealth. But that is not the intent, which would be contrary to Torah sources. For example, we pray for wealth when we recite Birchat HaChodesh, and the gemara relates positively the wealth of sages such as Rebbi and Rabbi Akiva. Nor is the proposed guideline intended to suggest that individuals should willy-nilly forego assets or waive other rights to which they genuinely believe they are entitled al pi halacha.

Instead, the key point is that wealth – i.e., assets – is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means for accumulating spiritual merits. An analogy will help explain the concept. Financial professionals are familiar with the difference between liquid assets such as cash, and non-liquid assets such as real estate. The former are portable, while the latter are not. Thus, if a wealthy man was seeking to escape from a country (which has been the tragic lot of many Jews throughout history), he could not take his real estate with him. But he could sell his real estate and thereby convert those illiquid assets into cash and gems, and take those with him to his destination to preserve his wealth.

Similarly, the pasuk in Tehillim and mishna in Pirkei Avot cited above teach us that material assets are not liquid – that is, they cannot be taken with us to the next world. But spiritual merits are portable – they will accompany us when our souls return to their Maker. Therefore, material assets are valuable only insofar as an individual is able – through his choices -- to convert those assets into spiritual merits that he can take with him on his final journey.

Rav Hirsch echoes this message when he explains that the rank of an individual in G-d’s eyes is not determined by the gifts (e.g., wealth) he has received from the hands of God through birth or fate, but rather by how he utilizes his lot in life to strive for moral perfection (as Rashi comments on the gemara in Eruvin 86a – why did Rebbi and Rabbi Akiva show respect to wealthy individuals? Only because of their good deeds and charity).

Rav Hirsch’s teaching is borne out by a fascinating gemara in Pesachim 50a describing the near-death experience of a certain sage, Rav Yosef. After Rav Yosef regained consciousness from a coma, his father, Rav Yehoshua ben Levi, asked him what he saw. Rav Yosef replied: “An inverted world where the uppermost in this world are below in the World to Come, and the lowly in this world, are above in the World to Come.” The simple explanation of the gemara is that the rich are esteemed in this world, while the poor are esteemed in the World to Come (because, as Maharshal explains, the poor lead lives devoid of materiality, and so the loss of materiality in olam haba is not as painful for them).

However, Rav Moshe Feinstein offers a more nuanced interpretation. He explains that in this world, our perception of who is on top and who is at the bottom is distorted. We might perceive a rich man to be on top because of the amount of tzedaka he gives, or a Torah scholar to be on top because of his erudition, and the number of students who consult him. And we may think a simple Jew with no apparent assets, wisdom or talents who ekes out a living is at the bottom of the ladder. But we are not privy in this world to anyone’s spiritual bank account, and our assumptions may be completely wrong. Ultimately, the extent of each individual’s spiritual merits is only revealed to him in the next world. According to Rav Moshe, this is the meaning of Rav Yosef’s description of olam haba – the metrics used to measure success in this world are not the same ones used to determine one’s ranking in olam haba.

This was the message I took away from my mourning (as well as from the way in which my father, Shmuel Aharon ben Ephraim Fischel v'Rivka - conducted himself during his lifetime). We need to focus on making choices that maximize conversion of our “assets” in this world — whether they be wealth, health, intelligence, talents or any other gift from Hashem — into merits that will accumulate in our spiritual bank account, thereby hopefully earning for ourselves an esteemed place in olam haba. So next time you are faced with a difficult choice, remember, “collect merits, not assets,” and choose correctly.


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