This morning I read in the paper that our esteemed Texas governor, Rick Perry, has affirmed that all his non-Christian constituents are going to hell. If that seems like an odd thing for a governor running for re-election to say, well, then you don't know Texas. Hell is always close to our thoughts. Perhaps that because we just came through another Texas summer. I was privy to a conversation at the end of August that has really stuck with me. I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, casually listening to the conversation of two elderly people, a man and women, sitting across from me. “It’s too damn hot!” the older man, said, half speaking, half shouting in the way people do who are losing their hearing. “It’s too damn hot, I can’t take the heat in Texas anymore –"I’m moving to New Mexico! Maybe Deming, some place in the mountains!”
I don’t know whether it was the fact that he used the word “damn” or whether the it was the weather its that inspired her, but the woman sitting next to him reached out with a reassuring hand, patted him on the knee and calmly said, “You know, the Lord has prepared a place for us far hotter then anything can we can know in this life. He’s warning us to get right with Him.”
There was a bit of a pause as the man processed her words. He looked at her intently and declared, “It’s too damned hot, I’m moving to New Mexico!”
Maybe its because I grew up in New Mexico, or maybe its because I’m Jew, but I felt more empathy for his position than hers. As far as I’m concerned, this is about as hot as its ever going to get for me, and that’s more than enough.
This little vignette just floated around in my head right up until I got a phone call from a young person, one of my former confirmands, who called me and started to talk to me about his concerns about eternity. Apparently he had been thinking about eternity quite a bit, and he was especially bothered because while he heard his non-Jewish friends talk about eternity all the time, he couldn’t recall much of anything he had ever heard about eternity from a Jewish perspective. He had even pulled out the book I had given him at his Bar Mitzvah, Jewish Literacy, and looked up “eternity” in there. I was delighted to hear this, as this is the first real verification I have ever had that one of our B’nai Mitzvah kids had ever read the book. But he went on to say that what he found was disappointingly vague. He was anxious to know what Judaism had to say about eternity, and he was beginning to feel that this was a shortcoming in our faith.
And this made me think about the little lady in the waiting room and how, truly, unlike Jews, even thoughts about the weather cause some people in other religious traditions turn so easily to thoughts of eternity, life after death, and how its going to all work out.
And as he told me about this, how it frustrated him and bothered him, I realized this was a RaSHI moment. What’s a RaSHI moment?
Well RaSHI is the great medieval Bible commentator. His commentary on the Torah is considered the first place any Jew should start if he or she wants to get a better understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Now the student soon learns that normally, when RaSHI feels he has a grasp on the meaning of verse, he keeps his commentary short – one or two sentences, sometimes even just three or four clarifying words. But then there comes the verses when RaSHI goes on and on, two-three, four paragraphs on a sentence, a phrase, even a single word. In rabbinical school whenever we came to one of those protracted comments, our teacher would say, “So what’s bothering RaSHI?” And we knew what was bothering him – he felt like he didn’t have a really good handle on the verse. His inability to fix on an answer made him anxious, so he would marshal everything he could think of to make sense of the problem.
And I understood this young person was having a RaSHI moment. But on further reflection, I realized the issue was bigger than that. People, whether it be young adults in college or elders sitting in a waiting room, tend to talk about and talk through the things that make us anxious. The more bothered we are, the more we talk. And it occurred to me, in a way that hadn’t before, that this may be one of the reasons other religious groups talk about what will happen to us in eternity far more than Judaism does. It’s an anxiety issue.
Which is counter-intuitive. I mean many of these same religious groups assure the believer that if one is a member in good standing of that group, then one’s place in Eternity is absolutely assured. So presumably, having become safe for all eternity, the need to talk about it would subside. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. Having experienced salvation for themselves, the focus simply shifts over to the salvation of, or lack there of, of others. The anxiety remains, if not for one’s self, then for the people around the believer. But I don’t think that these folks lack confidence in their own deliverance so much as they are anxious about the afterlife in general; they worry about the suspended judgment of God directed against all humanity.
So, if this logic is correct, then the fact that Jewish teachers throughout the ages felt so little need to comment of eternity and the world-to-come is a sign of our confidence. When there is not much to be worried about, then there isn’t much that needs to be said.
Or so I thought. For, while we who teach and speak Torah may be confident because of our knowledge and belief, our disinterest in talking about such things can amount to a disservice to those who are not so conversant with what tradition believes. It is a disservice to our fellow Jews if we fail to explain the basis for our confidence, if we do not teach others why it is that we are not so anxious about eternity, death, or the World-to-Come.
Oh, we Jewish spokesman and women have some stock things we say. When asked about such things I often say something like this, “In some faiths, salvation is ours to be had. In Judaism, salvation is ours to be lost.” Or I’ll say, “Judaism teaches that if we take care of our business in this World, God will take care of us in the Next.” But I now understand that may not be enough for those of us who find ourselves talking about eternity with our friends and neighbors, or who have questions of our own. So I am going to tell you what our tradition teaches.
So why are we Jews not to fret about what happens to us after we die? Because, we believe, our existence precedes this existence. Judaism teaches there is life before life, and when this existence reaches its conclusion, God comes to reclaim what is His. Part of us lives on. Repeatedly the Hebrew Scriptures speak of us as God’s “portion” and God’s “inheritance.” Putting things in a financial idiom, we are God’s investment in this world; the human soul is God’s stake in creation. A creation that grows in goodness is God’s dividend, yielded through us, but we are God’s spiritual principle. As it says in Psalm 49: Their form shall waste away…but God will ransom my soul from the grave, for He will receive me.
That is why both the Chofetz Chayyim and Abraham Heschel describe death as a homecoming – it is surely an end, but also a return. As Eccelestates writes, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, while the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The Jewish presupposition is simply this: we are worthy of eternity because of our affinity to the divine – part of the likeness of God is to have some sort of share in God’s immortality. We are confident because of what we have in common with God; as the Wisdom of Solomon states: For God created man for immortality and made him in the image of His own particular nature. Yet, our confidence springs less from our thinking about our our own goldy attributes then thinking about God’s nature. We trust that God will not desert those who trust in Him. The Psalmist asks rhetorically, “Whither shall I go from Your spirit; O where shall I flee from Your presence.” The answer is: nowhere.
Now, for traditions that focus on the unworthiness of humanity, traditions that make our failings and frailty the principle feature of what it is to be human, this is the very crux of the problem: returning to God is a fearful thing, a fraught situation. But Judaism, affirming we are made in God’s image, has hope as to our fate because we have confidence that God values us – we are His inheritance.
As Heschel notes, Being human means we will die: our bodies will undergo organic dissolution and organic rebirth. But human being is not an organic substance, it is a state of energy – we are radiation of God, and as we know, energy is never lost, it is only transformed.
But what about this world and its relationship to the next? Because of the focus of other religious movements on getting into heaven, many people, even Jews, make the mistake of thinking that the reason we follow the commandments; that we are a religion of “deeds, not creeds,” is because it is only our good deeds that will bring us salvation in the World-to-Come. But as logical as that might seem, even that is mistaken.
Jewish mystics, in their own fashion, turn the whole question of salvation through commandments on its head with the Kabbalistic doctrine that when we do the mitzvot and do them with the right intention, what we achieve is less about helping ourselves then it is about helping God. When we do right, it strengthens God’s power in the world, it opens a door to God’s presence that would otherwise be shut; doing good creates a tikkun
, a mending and improvement of God’s creation. Doing right, in other words, is less about escaping from God’s wrath and more about being joined to God’s cause, about doing right for the sake of right and doing good because it advances the cause of good.
Ultimately, the whole purpose of Torah is not to assure us salvation in the future, but to bring salvation to us now. Torah is about our tasting eternity sooner rather than later, about making this world now a fore-taste of what we expect in the World to Come. As Heschel writes, “The secret of spiritual living is that one gets a sense of the ultimate in each moment, in feeling its sacred uniqueness, its “once-and-for-allness.”
Our deeds today are a kind of language that allows us to conjugate eternity into the present tense; they are God’s seeds for re-planting the Garden of Eden, and each righteous act sows a garden of eternity in our midst, the fruits of which we can enjoy now.
So there it is. Judaism calls us to live by faith, not fear. It invites us to choose the joy of living over the anxiety of death. We should do what is right and just, good and beautiful, not because we dread what awaits us if we don’t, but because God is right and just, good and beautiful.
We do not fear the future becasue the faith of Torah demands instead we focus on what we have now – life – and in every moment we are living, Torah propels us toward even more life – life now, life for all, life everlasting.