Heaven, do we believe?

By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF

I saw my first daffodil a couple of weeks back. First the green shoots exploring a newly bright world. Tentative at first, then a few more. And evidently they decided it beat being buried in the dirt so they celebrated with a golden blossom. Out of nothing burst a green fountain, then a miniature sunburst.

Ted_RobertsIt reminded me of the Midrash that says our G-d is one of rejuvenation. Nothing dies – only disappears from our mortal view. I’m willing to bet a pastrami sandwich from the Carnegie Deli that the most frequent and difficult question asked of Rabbis is: “Rabbi, do we believe in an afterlife?” Not his personal belief, but is it in our creed? “Is there an afterlife?” That’s a tough one, beyond human ken, but is such a belief part of our creed?

That’s the question to put to your rabbi. The Pharisees, long ago, answered the question positively. But nowhere in the Chumash is there a clear declaration of such belief. Notice when his “stiff-necked” partners in the covenant misbehave, their celestial partner never talks of hellish punishment – or denial of heaven.

Instead, he talks of punishing succeeding generations – as though that’s the only way of inflicting pain on you after your earthly departure – you live in them. And the same with rewards for beneficial behavior: your descendants shall be blessed – not you, after you have checked out. It is a fact that resurrection of the dead is one of Maimonides 13 principles of faith. But the rational philosopher had his detractors. Let’s just say it is not as strong a pillar of faith as in Islam and Christianity.

Of all the uncertainties that plague mankind – numero uno is, Do I get a second, third, or fourth chance to go around again on the Merry-Go-Round? And oddly enough, every religion has a solid no-nonsense, positive answer – except one – Judaism. Christianity and Islam say “absolutely”. Hinduism says sure, but maybe as a cow or perhaps a chicken. (I’d rather be a rabbit.)

A cynical view is that because the world’s two major beliefs, Christianity and Islam, originated from Judaism and prized Jewish converts, they added the bows and ribbon of the world to come. And alluring statements of the paradisiacal next world were a great selling point. Who knows?

Christianity, in its formative years, dropped most of those tough Jewish rules to encourage recruits. And maybe somebody – Paul-like in his zeal – said we’ve cut those heavy requirements in this world – kashrus, shabbat – but maybe we need to add some bright lights for the next.

Look at those daffodils. How exemplary. Every year they die – join the earth from whence they came. But lo – here is Spring and they live again. I don’t mean to be hypercritical – it was not only an illustration in the Christian/Moslem brochure, but a sincere belief. One that many Jews could also believe since it is not denied, but not underlined by Torah. “Dust thou art to dust returneth was not spoken of the soul.”

So says Longfellow, but he’s not known as a Yeshiva student. And Genesis, whose author made both life and Longfellow, says the opposite – thou shall revert to thy original dust due to your disobedience. Remember Adam and Eve? And the Creator’s anger – his curse at our disobedience!

Still, the optimist reflects on that flower that blooms and dies, but lives to bloom again. And pays little heed to me or Longfellow.

Ask your rabbi. Who knows? The daffodil escapes Winter by hiding in the ground. But it is not dead.

Mark Twain, a man who was uncomfortable in church, mosque, or synagogue, has a humorous take on the subject. In “Letters From the Earth” the devil, in a reconnoitering visit to earth, writes home: “You won’t believe these people,” he tells his Hellish minions. “They can’t sing worth a darn and nobody plays the harp – but their heaven – their eternal paradise is full of bellowing harpists. That’s all they do.”

Then he makes a sharp point: “The thing they enjoy most in this world – the earthly joy they’re obsessed with, the gratification that has cost them fortunes, empires, reputations (not to mention marriages) is never visualized in their dreams of the world to come.” You know what he means. I must add that in my skimpy knowledge of comparative religion, Islam corrected this oversight with herds of virgins roaming the fleecy cloud meadows.

Like I say, ask your rabbi – not of existence or nonexistence of the world to be. You don’t pay him enough for that kind of knowledge. But instead, ask whether it’s a formal pillar of our creed – that’s the question. I’d like to know, too.

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