This week is the penultimate of the שבע דנחמתא, as Isaiah describes the גאולה of the End of History, as he comforts the bereft Jerusalem over the loss of her people:
I want to look at פסוק כא. וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים. We’re in Elul now, one week before Rosh Hashana. It’s reassuring for the navi to tell us that we are all צדיקים. That makes תשובה easier—we’re already done! I’m a צדיק, you’re a צדיק; nothing to worry about!
And it seems like the mishna reads this pasuk exactly that way:
We all get our eternal reward.
But it’s not so simple. The mishna continues:
So it looks that we are all guaranteed a חלק לעולם הבא as long as we don’t have certain forbidden beliefs. The Rambam in his פירוש המשניות has a long discussion of this משנה, called הקדמת הרמב״ם לפרק חלק, including defining exactly what beliefs are required to get to עולם הבא. These are summarized as the יג עיקרים, the אני מאמין's.
So do we not have to do תשובה for our sins? Is it all a matter of singing יגדל (and meaning it!)? The Rambam explains that we are confusing two different concepts, עולם הבא and ימות המשיח.
The implication of the gemara is that רבי חייא בר אבא would take the prophecies of, e.g., the lion lying down with the lamb, or the rivers flowing from Jerusalem, as literal miracles in ימות המשיח, and שמואל says those miracles apply only to עולם הבא. But Rambam’s understanding of עולם הבא fuses the two opinions: first there will be a time called ימות המשיח, that will be a normal physical era, and all the hard-to-understand miracles of the נביאים are metaphoric. Then there will be the entirely spiritual era of עולם הבא, of which we know nothing but that it exists:
In the time of ימות המשיח, with the end of global conflict and its attendant poverty, we will be able to keep the Torah as commanded. As Rav Kook says:
The only reason to not keep the Torah would be אפיקורסות, and so the נביא can say of the rest of us, עמך כולם צדיקים.
And that’s how the Rambam understands the reward and punishment in this week’s parasha:
Nothing we have in this world is because we deserve it; ה׳ gives us the benefits of this world in order to allow us to fulfill the תורה. If you have done מיצוות, Hashem will give you the tools—health, wealth, influence—that will allow you to do more מיצוות. It’s like getting a second round of venture capital funding. At each stage, the funder looks at what you’ve managed to do with what you had before deciding that you should get more money. The big payoff at the IPO doesn’t happen until much later. So too, we need to realize that the gifts we have, that Hashem grants us, are tools, not rewards. We have to use them to give to others and then we will be granted more of those gifts.
And it gives us a very different model for awaiting ביאת משיח. אחרית הימים will not happen unexpectedly; rather, it will be the culmination of a virtuous cycle. We do good, ה׳ gives us goods, we do better, ה׳ removes שעבוד מלכיות, and then we are in ימות משיח. It could happen in any generation.
So our haftorah is describing what happens as a result of ימות המשיח. And ה׳ promises that we will get there, one way or another:
עַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים is a not a blessing but a challenge. In times of peace and plenty, with none of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” to impede our spiritual progress, will we reach our potential and merit the true reward of לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ? Or will we “force ה׳'s hand” and suffer until we do end up doing תשובה?