Heaven Can Wait

May 9, 2009

9 min read


If Jews believe in a blissful afterlife, why does death cause us such inconsolable grief?

In the recent war, 118 Israeli soldiers and 52 Israeli civilians were killed. Each one of these deaths was experienced by the Jews of Israel as a major tragedy. Every Israeli newspaper and television station showed photographs of each one of the fallen, with a short or long description of the deceased's life, interests, hobbies, and recent statements to friends and relatives. Every funeral or shiva (house of mourning) was televised, showing the sobbing mother, the grief-stricken father, the decimated widow, the bereft sister or brother. The television did not show its own weeping viewers.

These deaths were not only personal tragedies, but collective calamities.

These deaths were not only personal tragedies, but also collective calamities. Israel may be the only country in the world where, when the radio reports a military or civilian casualty, it announces the time and place of the funeral, knowing that many listeners, unacquainted with the deceased, will want to attend.

Michael Levine, 21, an idealistic American Jew, made aliyah three years ago and joined the Israeli army. On leave to visit his parents this summer, he was in Philadelphia when the war broke out. Although his leave was good for a few more weeks, Michael came rushing back to Israel to contribute his share.

He was killed in action in Lebanon. Michael's funeral at the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery was attended by many hundreds of mourners. They were Jews from across the religious and political spectrum. The only two things most of them had in common were that they had never met Michael and that they cried copiously at his burial.

My own grief at Michael's death (I, too, had never known him) reminded me of a story I had read many years ago. The son of a Christian missionary who worked in what was then called the Belgian Congo wrote lovingly about his father. When Congolese rebels took over the capitol, they imprisoned his father and other missionaries. The Mother Superior of a local Catholic convent was the only white-skinned person permitted to visit the jailed missionaries. Every morning the families of the imprisoned telephoned the Mother Superior to inquire about the welfare of their husbands and fathers.

One night, machete-wielding rebels burst into the jail cell and hacked to death all the missionaries. The next morning this particular son, unaware of the atrocity, telephoned the Mother Superior and inquired how his father was.

"He's fine," she answered. "He's in heaven."

When I first read this story, my gut reaction to the Mother Superior's answer was: A Jew would never have answered like that. But why? I wondered.

At the time I had never studied Torah and had only the vaguest notion of the Jewish concept of the afterlife. In the afternoon and evening Hebrew school I had attended, I had heard Hasidic stories about "the heavenly tribunal" assigning souls to heaven or hell. So, I surmised, Jews must believe in heaven, but I had never once heard any Jew mention it. I was a child when my Uncle Harry died at the age of forty-two. Judging by my family's inconsolable crying, I concluded that death was the terrible end of the story, without any comforting epilogue.

Years later when I read the Mother Superior's sanguine response to the missionary's massacre, I wondered why we Jews react to death with such prostrate grief rather than with some high-minded, philosophical stoicism. Don't we also believe in heaven?

The Highest Heaven

Now I've studied enough Judaism to know that Michael Levine is in heaven. According to Judaism, heaven is a wholly spiritual dimension of reality where souls receive a wholly spiritual reward: to bask in the radiance of the Divine Presence. The myriad "levels" of heaven mean ever greater proximity to the Divine Light.

Michael Levine is in the highest heaven, with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Talmud relates the episode of the "tzaddikim (righteous) of Lod." A Roman officer was assassinated by Jews in the vicinity of the village of Lod. The Romans declared that if the assassins did not come forward, every Jew in the village would be executed. Two brothers who had nothing to do with the murder confessed and allowed themselves to be killed in order to spare the other Jews of Lod.

The Talmud asserts that these two "tzaddikim of Lod," who were previously unremarkable for their piety or wisdom, gained a place in the Next World with the Patriarchs. The inference is that any Jew who dies to protect other Jews similarly qualifies for that highest level of heaven.

Yet, I am sure, not a single mourner watching Michael's Israeli flag draped coffin lowered into the grave thought, "He's fine. He's in heaven." Why not?

For a Few Pennies

Ethics of the Fathers, the aphorisms of the Sages of 2,000 years ago, defines the difference between this world and the Next World: "Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come; and better is one hour of bliss in the World-to-Come than the whole life of this world." [4:17]

In other words, the Next World is the locus for receiving reward, and none of the pleasure of this world is remotely comparable to the bliss of the Next World. On the other hand, this world is the locus for choosing to do good, which is somehow better than receiving even the most blissful reward in the Next World.

A Jew's primary focus is on this world, because only here can the soul choose good.

The Gaon of Vilna was the greatest Torah luminary of the last few centuries. On his deathbed at the end of a long and saintly life, the Gaon of Vilna wept. When his family asked him why, he replied, "Here in this world, for a few pennies I can purchase tzitzis [ritual fringes Jewish men wear on a four-cornered garment]." All the bliss of heaven was not enough to console the sage for the loss of the opportunity to do one mitzvah.

The Jew's primary focus is on this world because only here can a soul choose good. Only in this world can a person opt to fulfill the Divine will. Only in this world can a person give God the "gift" of obeying His word. The Next World is for receiving. This world is for giving. When we give, we become like God, the Ultimate Giver. Little wonder that Judaism places supreme value on this world.

Although the performance of every mitzvah automatically generates a reward in the Next World, the wise know that the goal of doing the mitzvah is not the reward. Rather, the value of the mitzvah is inherent in the act of choosing to do good, irrespective of the reward. The esteemed Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the dean of Aish HaTorah, illustrates this sublime concept with a metaphor:

Let's say you are performing the mitzvah of honoring parents by serving your mother a glass of water. A man witnessing your deed tells you, "What a wonderful thing you just did! You honored your mother! Here's $100,000 reward."

You would likely tell the man that you didn't do it for the reward, but, since he's offering, you graciously accept the $100,000. The next time you serve your mother a glass of water, the scene repeats. Again, you didn't do it for the money, but nevertheless you accept the reward. This scene repeats itself ten times.

The 11th time you're serving your mother a class of water, out of the corner of your eye you see the man holding the cash. What are you thinking about? Certainly not the mitzvah of honoring your mother! You're thinking about the $100,000!

This is equivalent to performing mitzvot and good deeds in order to receive a heavenly reward.

But Rabbi Weinberg describes another scenario: Let's say that you and your 2-year-old child are standing beside a pool, and the toddler accidentally falls in. Of course, you jump into the pool, even with all your clothes on, and save your child. A man witnessing your deed tells you, "What a wonderful thing you just did! Here's $1,000,000 reward."

You would likely tell the man that you didn't do it for the reward, but, since he's offering, you graciously accept the $1,000,000. A short time later, the scene repeats. Again you jump in and save your toddler. Again the man offers you $1,000,000, and although you didn't do it for the money, nevertheless you accept the reward. This scene repeats itself ten times.

The 11th time your child falls into the pool, out of the corner of your eye you see the man holding the cash. What are you thinking about? SAVING YOUR CHILD!

Each mitzvah is worth more than its reward.

Some acts have such intrinsic value, obvious even to our limited human perception, that no amount of reward can distract us from the value of the act itself.

The wise know that every mitzvah is worth more than its reward. "Fulfilling the will of the Almighty," asserts Rabbi Weinberg, "is an end in itself. We Jews are not looking to get into heaven, but to turn this earth into heaven. Every time we die, we fail."

That's why we cried at the death of Michael Levine. Yes, he merited the highest level of heaven. Yes, he is now basking in the bliss of the Divine Presence. Yes, even if he had lived another 60 years, he could not have earned a greater reward than what he got for dying in order to protect the lives of other Jews. But had he lived, he could have (and would have) served his mother a glass of water. He could have made Kiddush on Shabbat. He could have given charity to the needy. And these acts, possible only in this physical world, are meaningful and precious beyond reward.

"Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come." Jews do believe in heaven. But we are charged with making this world into heaven, and that heaven of our own minute-by-minute choices, of our own hourly struggle, of our own daily striving, is infinitely precious. And the loss of those days and hours and minutes in anyone's life is infinitely tragic.

No wonder we weep.

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