The Influence of the Righteous in this World and the Next
“These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations. Noah walked with G-d” (Gen 6:9).
In the name of the Sages, Rashi says the following on this verse, “For some of our Sages, ‘in his generations’ is to his credit, for if he was righteous in his own generation, how much more would he have been in a generation of righteous men. For others, this is to his discredit, for he was righteous only in comparison to his contemporaries, but had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would not have been so notable.”
Let us begin by relating what Rabbi Hiya bar Achy said: “The righteous rest neither in this world nor the next, as it is said, ‘They advance from strength to strength; each one will appear before G-d in Zion’ [Ps 84:8]” (Berachot 64a).
Concerning this subject, the Vilna Gaon wrote that in this world, it is said that man “walks”, for he advances without stop and grows in the knowledge of Torah and the performance of commandments and good deeds. But in the next world, he no longer has any obligations, for it is written, “I will grant you passage among these [angels] who stand here” (Zec 3:7). In the next world, everyone is static (like the angels), and it is only in this world that we have the possibility to grow spiritually. This is why it is said concerning angels that they “stand up”, but of men that they “walk”, for men should always be progressing.
We can go on further and note that, once we leave a dead body we say “Lech Beshalom”, but when we leave a living person we say “Lech Leshalom” (Berachot 64a). This is because the letter Beth represents a state that is static and permanent, which is the case with the dead, whereas the letter Lamed represents movement and activity. And yet, it is said concerning certain of the righteous that they “walk” even in the next world, because there too they continue to progress. The Sages say concerning them, “Even in the next world they have no rest,” and they continue to grow and advance in the service of G-d.
We see therefore that there are two types of people: Those who, when they arrive in the next world, remain static, and those who continue to progress. What is the difference between a man who observes the Torah, obeys the commandments, and performs acts of goodness in this world – yet in the next world remains static – and a righteous man who did the same yet continues to progress in the next world?
There are pious men who study and observe the Torah, but who unfortunately work only for themselves, giving no thought to others. They share none of their teachings with others, don’t pray for them, don’t care about the welfare or well being of their fellow, don’t correct them in their conduct, etc. Of such people it is true, they don’t have rest in this world, but they grow without concerning themselves over the needs of others, needs that they don’t come to aid. They remain cloistered in their “four cubits”. All the time that they spend in this world, they grow. But when they leave this world for the next, they remain calcified in the level that they reached when they passed away. In the next world, they will no longer be able to take action, as it is written, “Among the dead who are free” (Ps 88:6) which means that “Death frees one from all obligations” (Shabbat 30a, 151b; Niddah 61b). Concerning these righteous, it is said that they find peace in the next world, having no longer to exert themselves, but they remain at the level that they attained in the lower world.
On the other hand, there is another category of men, righteous as well, who of course occupy themselves with the study of Torah, obey the commandments, and fear G-d, but possess the additional characteristic of coming to the aid of others. They help to encourage and bring people back to G-d. Aside from their individual piety, they put themselves at the disposal of others, and their reward is great. Although they have no rest in this world (occupied as they are with gladly providing for the needs of other), they are happy to help and direct people in the right path and teach them Torah, and are rewarded by seeing the fruit of their labor.
Since “G-d deprives no creature of its reward” (Bava Kama 38b; Nazir 23b; Pesachim 118a), and He pays back to each measure for measure, their joy and reward in the next world will be to continue to progress by concerning themselves over the fate of Jews still living. As our Sages say, “Jews, even when dead, are called alive” (Berachot 18a).
Noah is an example. As we said earlier, even though the Torah testifies that he was “a righteous man and perfect in his generations” (Gen 6:9), some Sages judge him unfavorably. Why did they interpret this verse negatively?
It is because at the end of the section, it is simply said of Noah that he was “a man of the earth” (Gen 9:20). And why? Because he was concerned only about saving himself, not others. His very name, Noah, indicates rest (mihnuha in Hebrew); Noah was troubled only over himself. This wasn’t the case with Abraham, who thought not only of himself, but also came to the aid of others, whom he instructed in the fear of G-d. It is written, “And the souls that they made in Haran” (Gen 12:5), which are Sages explain as follows: “Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women, and the Torah considers this as if they themselves had created them.” It is possible that this is the reason why it is written, “Noah walked with G-d” (Gen 6:9), for he went only with G-d in his observance of the commandments, without concerning himself with others.
The Sages ask, “With what do the righteous occupy themselves in the next world?” (Zohar I:183a, III:159b-160a). They answer as follows: “In the next world, they occupy themselves with the same things that they did in this world.” This means that if they were occupied only with Torah, they will continue to study Torah, and if they also helped others – praying for and having a positive influence on the lives of their contemporaries – then in the next world they will continue to do so.
This is why “the righteous rest neither in this world nor the next” (see Maharcha, Berachot 64a). In the next world, “they sit and rejoice in the Divine Splendor” (Berachot 17a; Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan 1:8). Because of this, if we make mention of their merit in our prayers, we will disturb them in their rest, and what’s more, will connect them to the material world, which for them constitutes a great disruption. It is extremely difficult for them to leave their rest, up there, to take note of the concerns in this lower world and to pray for us. Yet despite this, when we expose them to the problems of the material world, they remember that they too were once part of it. They recall how difficult it is to live in this world, and so they pray for us in order that we may be granted an abundance of blessings and success.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai protected his entire generation in his lifetime, to the point that he could say, “I could have saved the entire world from catastrophe” (Sukkah 45b). After his death he also continued to protect the world, and even in our days his name is revered by all. It is the same with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, may his merit protect us. I’ve heard it said that the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his lifetime, felt the personal problems of everyone. If such was the case when he was alive, how much more so after his death. It is therefore not without reason that, in order to benefit from the merit of his father-in-law, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z’’l would read at his gravesite the requests and letters that he received. Similarly, it is said concerning my ancestor and revered teacher, the holy Rabbi Haim Pinto, that he had promised before dying that whoever would pray at his gravesite on the day of his Hilloula (Elul 26), would be favorably mentioned on the day of Rosh Hashanah.
And yet all the men who have, during their lifetime, observed Torah in the hopes of being able to eternally bask in the Divine Splendor don’t become renown after their death. This doesn’t mean that the righteous who have remained unknown have not helped others, but rather that their contemporaries were incapable of recognizing the great sanctity of their souls, and that is why they remain relatively unknown.
It is therefore natural that certain people mistake themselves into thinking that men known for their piety don’t deserve the honors that they receive, or that they attained their position without effort or pain. This is simply not true. These righteous men greatly suffered before becoming known, struggling day and night to become one of the “Righteous for whom G-d executes the decree” (Shabbat 59a). Nothing is gotten without effort and without pain, even less so the fear of G-d, of which it is said, “Everything is in the hands of G-d except the fear of G-d” (Berachot 33b; Zohar I:59a). It is certain that they worked very hard before attaining their position.
Without a doubt, the righteous after their death continue to work for their people, and they progress and their powers grow due to those who follow them and who give them merit. When we recall the Patriarchs in our prayers, G-d is favorable to us because of their merit, as it is said, “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember “ (Lev 26:42).