Some people live with an attitude of "seize the moment, live it up now and forget about the future."
Others advocate: "surrender the moment, sacrifice transient pleasures for the heavenly rewards of the after life. Suffer now so you can enjoy later."
What does Judaism believe?
Torah living is actually closer to the first approach but with a serious modification. Torah prescribes to live for the moment, but to cram into it everlasting meaning.
If you look in the five books of the prophet Moses, the Chumash, there is no mention of the world to come.
One of the things we learn when we recite the Shema, the Jewish prayer declaring that G-d is one, is about the rewards for doing mitzvas, performing the commandments. The Shema reads, "… If you follow My commandments, there will be grass in your fields for your cows." When I first read this, I thought, "That's what I get for my mitzvahs? I have been holding back my whole life from eating a 99-cent McDonald's cheeseburger so that my cows can eat grass? I don't even have cows."
The Shema continues that as another reward for following the commandments, G-d will bring rain in its proper time. "That's nice," I used to think. "And I will be able to harvest my field, which means I will be able to work hard. That's what I get for doing my mitzvahs? No promises of some amazing after life?"
It says in "Ethics of Our Fathers," Pirkei Avos, "Do not serve the Great One (G-d) in order to get a prize. You should serve the Great One in order not to get a prize." What this means is that we should serve G-d because it is the right thing to do, without any hope or interest in receiving some future reward.
A woman who was at a recent Isralight retreat told me that she desperately wanted to meet her soul mate. "Rabbi, if I start keeping Shabbes [Sabbath], will G-d give me my soul mate? Because I have friends whom keep Shabbes and they met guys. I don't keep Shabbes, so is that why G-d isn't bringing me a guy?"
I told her, "There are a lot of people who are incredible Jews who do mitzvas their whole lives and they are still struggling and hoping to find their soul mate. You can't keep Shabbes for that reason."
A sad thing, people think that living a Torah lifestyle will promise them a good future, and that embracing religion will erase all their pain. But it does not work that way. Sometimes it works just the opposite. Sometimes just as you embrace Torah, you are given more challenges.
When I was studying Torah with the actor Kirk Douglas, he was very excited with the learning and his personal growth. Soon he decided that he would light Shabbat candles and that he would not eat pork anymore. These were very big moves for him, but in the middle of it all he had a stroke. Here he was, returning to G-d, returning to Judaism, and he has a stroke.
G-d does not promise, certainly not in the immediate future, that because you embrace Judaism your life will be smooth and easy.
MAKING EACH SECOND OF YOUR LIFE COME FIRST
Judaism actually prescribes that you should live the moment, seize the moment, live for the now because all you have is the now. This is what the great sage Hillel taught, "If not now when?" There is only the now. The past is a memory and future is a dream. They are just mental conceptual abstractions. Only the now is real. Therefore, live for the now. Make each second of your life come first.
But what does it mean to live it up? How does one truly live for the now? How do we make every moment the most incredible, beautiful, powerful, meaningful moment of our life?
Torah teaches that the way to ultimate fulfillment is to turn your life into a service of the ultimate. Make each moment of your life ultimate by serving G-d here and now. To serve G-d means to embody eternal divine values and ideals, and to channel through your self the presence of G-d into the world. In other words, in every moment we can internalize the eternal and materialize the spiritual.
There is an interesting Jewish law that says that if you support a person's Torah learning, then you get a portion of their world to come. I could be a wealthy guy who does not feel like learning Torah and I could support someone else to learn Torah.
A fellow went to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was one of this generation's greatest authorities on Jewish law, and he said to him, "You know, Rabbi, I'm a wealthy guy. I do well in business and I could support people learning Torah. So why shouldn't I do that? This could be my way to get the eternal pleasures of the world to come."
The Rabbi replied, "It's true, but let me ask you something. What will you do to enjoy and take pleasure in this world?"
This fellow thought that we sacrifice the pleasures of this world when we dedicate our lives to the study of Torah but that for some poor people this may be their only way to merit the rewards of the after life. He thought it was a trade off-you need to give up this world for the next. And he was hoping that he could get the best of both by making lots of money and supporting others to learn. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that it is not true. We learn Torah not because it propels us to the next world or because it makes tomorrow better. We learn Torah for the pleasure it brings us nowin the present. In fact the Psalmist refers to the Torah as something playful like a toy.
A Torah inspired life is a life filled with love. Most people are living a life of fear. Fear is about the future: You do something because you are afraid of what might happen, what you might lose or what you could have gained. Love is about now. When you do something out of love you do it because you feel and want to express love now. When you obey G-d's command now, it is because you love G-d now, and you know that to fulfill His will is an opportunity to experience and manifest your love. This is the ideal fulfillment of a mitzvahcommandment. It is not about your future. It is about the ever-present joy of living a fulfilled life here and now in love with G-d and people.
Jewish tradition teaches us to seize the moment and live it up now. Don't waste precious moments on lusts that don't last. The worst thing that could ever happen to your lustful desires is to fulfill them because as soon as you do they are gone. Anticipating your desires is more pleasurable then finally getting them, because in a flash they are gone. Desires expire but love lasts. If you want to live it up in the moment then love in the moment.
When you love and serve G-d here and now, you infuse every moment of your life with everlasting meaning and real substance.
FOR THE LOVE OF BEANS
This attitude is what marked the difference between Jacob and his brother Esau. The Torah tells us that one day when Esau came home from being out in the field hunting, he saw his brother Jacob cooking a red potage, and said to him, "What's that red stuff, brother? Pour it down my throat, I'm doing to die."
So Jacob replied, "I'll give it to you, but in exchange for your birthright." And indeed, the Torah relates, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bunch of beans.
The Midrash fills in the dialogue. Esau said to Jacob, "I don't understand! Why do you want the birthright? Why is it so important to be the first born?"
"Because the first born is going to have the opportunity to serve in the Holy Temple," Jacob answers.
"What's the big deal about serving in the Temple?" Esau wonders.
"I'll tell you a little bit about the Temple, Esau. If you go there and your hair is disheveled, you are punishable by death."
Esau was a hairy fellow so he said in dismay, "Oh, yeah?"
Jacob continues, "And if you enter the Temple after drinking a couple of drinks, then you're also punishable by death."
Jacob then proceeds to tell Esau all the stringent laws that a Kohen, a Temple priest, has to abide by throughout his sacrificial service.
Esau realized that his birthright is going to make him dead wrong because everything fun is forbidden. Priesthood takes all the pleasure out of life. Who needs it?
"I'm going to die," he said. So he sold his birthright for beans.
From this Midrash, we may find it easier to understand Esau's attitude than Jacob's. Why would we want a live a Torah life filled with restrictions and laws that are punishable by death?
Jacob knew something about the Torah that Esau did not. The Torah is called the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. It is almost impossible to warrant the death penalty in Judaism because the rulings of the court, and the details and the necessities of what it takes to pass such a judgment, are so specific that the chances of a death penalty applying is practically nil. In a true Torah court it is near to impossible to actually get the death penalty. Why then does the Torah mention the death penalty so much?
I once heard an incredible answer to this question from one of my teachers. He explained that the Torah talks about the death penalty to tell us how much life is in it when we follow it. The Torah teaches us in the most dramatic way that if, for instance, something as small as lighting a match on Sabbath is punishable by death, then imagine how much life there is in celebrating the Sabbath.
Jacob understood this. Esau, however, felt that if he followed the laws of the Torah he would be giving up the good life. Esau believed in "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die," while Jacob believed in "eat, drink and be merry, but invite G-d to join you and turn it into sacred service." Jacob understood that the good life is when you have G-d in your life. Jacob and Esau both agreed there is no time like the present and you have to seize the moment enjoy life and be happy, but they disagreed on how to achieve that. Esau's motto was "lust while it lasts. So serve your self here and now." But Jacob's motto was "Only love can ever last. So serve G-d here and now."