Is there some kind of promise that all Jews will be in the World to Come? Some kind of “spiritual green card”? This doesn’t make complete sense to me. Isn’t the World to Come something that one has to earn?
Your intuition is right. There’s no favoritism regarding entry to the World to Come and a person has to earn it.
The teaching you’re referring to is a statement of the Sages (Sanhedrin 90a) that says, “All Israel have a portion to the World to Come”. This is the source for the popular misconception that every Jew automatically gains entry to the World to Come on what would be akin to a “spiritual green card”. However, a close look at the original Hebrew reveals the true meaning of the statement.
The phrase in Hebrew is “kol Yisrael [all Israel] yesh lehem chelek [have a portion] l’olam haba”. Now if “l’olam haba” meant “in” the World to Come, grammatically the phrase should read “b’olam haba”, with a ‘beit’. But rather than a ‘beit’, there’s a ‘lamed’ which means not “in” but “to”. So grammatically speaking what the teaching is saying is that every Jew has a portion “to” the World to Come.
So what does this mean, what’s the difference?
The idea is exactly as you guessed. By G‑d’s giving the Torah and commandments to the Jews, He gave them a venue through which to earn a portion in the World to Come. But there’s no automatic membership. A Jew has to earn it by living his life according to G‑d’s will. What he’s guaranteed is that if he does lead a life of Torah and mitzvot, this will get him to the World to Come. By the way, other sources (Sanhedrin 102b; Rambam, Teshuva 3:5) assert that righteous non-Jews also merit the World to Come, but this particular teaching is referring specifically to Israel.
In that vein, there is an idea that links this particular teaching to the Jews. The word “Yisrael” used here is spelled ‘yud’, ‘sin’, ‘reish’, ‘alef’, ‘lamed’. This forms an acronym which refers to all of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish People: ‘yud’ – Yitzchak and Ya’akov; ‘sin’ – Sarah; ‘reish’ – Rivka and Rachel, ‘alef’ – Abraham; ‘lamed’ – Leah. Their descendants were given a sure path to the World to Come on condition that they follow in their footsteps.
Another inspiring idea associated with this teaching’s use of the term “Yisrael” is related to its usage in the Torah. Recall that Jacob wrestled through the long, dark night with a spiritual being who tried to overcome him (Gen. 32:25-29). Jacob tenaciously held on till morning when he demanded a blessing from this spiritual foe turned friend. To mark Jacob’s triumph over spiritual opposition, he was given the name Yisrael.
Accordingly, when the teaching says, “all Yisrael have a portion to”, it reveals the central prerequisite for finding the path and embarking on the journey to the World to Come. Namely, the need for a Jew, each individual according to his own level and abilities, to wrestle with spirituality, tenaciously strive for truth and ultimately transform the struggle to a spiritual asset and blessing. Thus, one whose approach to spirituality is that of “Yisrael” is on a sure path to earning a portion in the World to Come.