The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei) tells of the elderly woman who came to Rabi Yossi and poured out her tale of woe. She told the saintly Tanna that because of her advanced age, she no longer tasted any flavor in food or drink, she viewed her continued existence as worthless, and she therefore no longer wished to live.
“In what merit have you lived so long?” Rabi Yossi asked her,
“I arise early to go to the beis knesses, and stay there until late,” the woman replied.
“Stay home three days and don’t go to the beis knesses,” the Tanna instructed her.
The woman followed his instructions, and shortly thereafter, she was niftar.
At first glance this Chazal seems perplexing. What type of reward for her good deed was a longevity she so resented? Furthermore, since taking one’s own life is such a serious sin, and each hour of living is so precious, why did the Tanna tell her to stay home, which, in effect, ended her life?
One approach is that the value of a mitzvah in the eyes of Hashem depends much on the degree of joy and enthusiasm with which it is performed. That is why Chazal tell us that the reward for a mitzvah is the opportunity to do another mitzvah. For the one who truly rejoices in a mitzvah, the very fact that he now has the ability to perform another mitzvah is in itself a tremendous source of joy and satisfaction.
One hour of Torah and good deeds in this temporal world is worth more than all the glory of the world to come, because in the world to come we can no longer perform mitzvos, but can only reap the reward of the good deeds we amassed in this world.
The fact that the woman still merited to make her way to the beis knesses and daven to Hashem should have sufficed for her to experience great enjoyment in life. The bitterness she expressed and her viewing her life as worthless was an indication that she was merely “going through the motions,” and neither valued nor appreciated the mitzvah she was performing.
In fact, performing a mitzvah in such a manner would not warrant the blessing of long life. Rather, the blessing was just because other individuals — seeing this woman going to the beis knesses early and staying late — saw only her good deeds but did not know her motives. Therefore, since they would have failed to understand if she would have been niftar at a young age, she merited long life, even though she didn’t deserve it.
Rabi Yossi therefore advised her to stay home. Her petirah was not a punishment; it was merely that the external reason for her to remain alive was removed. (Adapted from a teaching of the Chasam Sofer)
This week the Torah instructs us, “Like the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled do not do…” (Vayikra 18:3)
The Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz, zy”a, quotes a Zohar Hakadosh saying that when the Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim, their mood was so shattered by the long years of persecution and enslavement that even when they heard the Shirah of the angels, they were unable to rejoice until Hakadosh Baruch Hu bolstered their spirits.
The Torah therefore tells us that we should be careful not to emulate the state of depression experienced by the Bnei Yisrael as they left Mitzrayim — but rather we should serve Hashem with simchah!
It is imperative that we seek to recognize the enormous value of every good deed, however small it may be. We must internalize the infinite merit of being able to serve Hashem in any capacity in this world. This in turn will help us attain true happiness, and help us infuse the performance of every mitzvah with great joy.
The importance of living a life of simchah cannot be underestimated.
Through simchah one emerges from all troubles, taught the Rebbe, Harav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, zy”a.
“I witnessed firsthand that this is so during a visit to Danzig,” the Rebbe related. “When I passed the river I saw a person drowning. Overcome by the waves, he had given up hope.”
“‘Send regards to the Leviasan,’ I shouted to him. A small smile appeared on his lips and he instantly began to fight against the waves, and survived…” (Chassidim Mesaprim).