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Heaven Can Wait: The Sabbath, Part 3

November 23, 2010 | by

If heaven's eternal bliss really lasts for an eternity, why doesn't it get boring?

The final article in a three-part series on the concept of Shabbos

We all work for a fair part of our lives. But there's something unsettling about this activity we call work.

This fact was made clear to me years ago by a teacher who took particular delight in tormenting us eager students with what might be charitably called healthy servings of philosophical cynicism. He once assigned a particularly difficult paper to my classmates and myself – and then, before we started working on it, he posed the following challenge to us:

"It’s going to take you many hours of work if you want to achieve an A on this paper," he began. "But let's say you put in those hours of work, and you hand in a really top-notch draft. And let's say that in the end, I decide to give you that A. What would happen next?"

We shrugged. It was an important class, and most of us really wanted that A.

"You'd be ecstatic," he said. "You might jump up and down and run down the hall to call your mother. You'll tell your friends."

"But then what will happen?" he asked. "For how long will you remain excited?

An hour?

Three hours?

A day?

Soon, it’s going to wear off; you’ll get restless; you’ll be ready for something new…”

"So ask yourself," he concluded, "maybe it’s just not worth it. Why are you bothering to do this?"

In effect, our professor was asking us to make a simple profit-loss analysis: If you spend 60 hours working on a paper and you get only two or three hours of satisfaction from your grade afterwards -- well, why bother? It doesn't seem to add up.

Now, don't get me wrong. The professor was not trying to convince us that we should get lazy on our papers. What he was really trying to do was help us clarify our goals.

Clarifying Goals

If we told ourselves that the goal of our work was the satisfaction we would receive in the end -- well, then, he would argue -- we were just fooling ourselves. That kind of satisfaction is very fleeting. It evaporates after a couple hours or a couple days.

Rather, he was suggesting, the work was only worth it is if we saw it as satisfying in and of itself. The process of writing that paper, of struggling to meet the challenge, had to be seen as its own reward. If we couldn't take pride in that process; if we couldn't see the process itself as valuable -- well then, we might as well just forget it.

A Troubling Conclusion

But the professor’s point, while it might ring true, is unsettling. It’s not so bad, maybe, when the only thing at stake is your college paper. But when you apply his logic outside the classroom, to life in the real world, things start to look a little depressing. For just about anything worthwhile we do in life requires work, and if we make a similar profit-loss analysis about the meaning of any work, we will reach similar conclusions.

In other words, say you're toiling away on an five-month project your boss assigns you, or that you are spending years writing a book. You invest seemingly countless hours in your labors. How much satisfaction will you possibly get at the end?

Enough to justify your weeks or months of toil?

Not likely.

A friend I know worked tirelessly writing a book for the better part of three years. When it was finally published, his wife threw him a surprise party and invited the neighborhood. He was thrilled with the feeling of completion. But his thrill faded after a matter of days. He was restless, and his recent success was no comfort. He related to me that in the years since finishing the work, he almost never went back to crack open the binding of the book he wrote. That chapter in his life was filed away. It was time to move on.

Why must the satisfaction of success be so fleeting?

There's something depressing about this. All of life's successes seem to fade so quickly. No feeling of satisfaction or well-being ever lasts very long. Yes, you can take pride in the process. You can see the act of writing as its own reward. That’s all very nice. But if what we did was truly worthwhile, why can't we hold onto the pleasure of actually achieving our goal, as well? Why must the satisfaction of success be so fleeting?

The more successful you get, it seems to me, the more you are bothered by this problem. One of the most successful men in Jewish history was terribly troubled by this problem; he wrote an entire book recounting how he was haunted by it. That book, canonized as part of the Bible, is known as Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon pours out his frustration at a world that won’t let any mark of success stand for very long at all. The world is constantly in motion, constantly changing. Nothing – not the fact of success, nor our pleasure in the face of it – endures long enough to be ultimately satisfying.

I think the phenomenon that the Torah call the Sabbath is meant, in part, to address this problem. The Sabbath, in a way, is designed to provide an antidote to the "boredom of success." And this, perhaps, may provide a key to a puzzle we alluded in Part Two. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Sabbath is "me'ein olam haba" -- a taste of the World to Come. What does this really mean? What fundamental similarity does olam haba, the World to Come, have with the phenomenon we know as the Sabbath?

The World to Come, the World of Being, is intimately connected with the idea of the Sabbath; that this world-beyond is somehow the native soil in which the Sabbath grows. The secret of this connection, I think, has much to do with the issues we’ve been talking about in the lines above.

Isn't Heaven Boring?

What is life like in Heaven?

The answer is the world's best kept secret. Billions of people before us have died, but no one has yet come back with an eyewitness report of what things look like from the other side. Be that as it may, our tradition assures us that it’s all worth it; that the reward of the righteous in the hereafter is something we ought to be looking forward to. The righteous, we are told, "live" onwards in a state of eternal bliss.

But here's the problem: Eternity is a pretty long time. For just how long do you think eternal "bliss" remains satisfying? Wouldn't bliss get kind of boring after a while?

Imagine you really enjoyed cruises. And someone offered you a free cruise to Alaska. Five star dining, deck-side luxury cabin, the works. For how long do you think you might enjoy such a cruise?

Two weeks? A month. What about six months?

And what if the cruise lasted for eternity? How many times could you see the same icebergs and watch the same penguins? At some point, it would stop seeming like a vacation and it would start seeming laborious. At some point, it would seem like the very opposite of heaven.

So if heaven's eternal bliss really lasts for an eternity, why doesn't it get boring? Why in heaven do we look forward to Heaven?

The Problem with Rest; The Problem with Work

This problem is related to the question we asked about the curious nature of work. Hundreds of hours of work don't seem justified by a fleeting few hours of reward. But, as we've just seen, the idea of “reward” is just as problematic as the idea of “work”. The notion of eternal reward seems downright boring. Neither work nor reward seem all that satisfying in the long run. What's the way out of this pickle?

The answer, I think, requires us to look more closely at the nature of life -- life, that is, in “This World” and life in the hereafter, life in the Next World. What, really, is the difference between these two worlds?

"This World" is a world of "becoming," and the "Next World" is a world of "being."

In a word, Judaism's answer is that "This World" is a world of "becoming," and the "Next World" is a world of "being." The next world is a “yom shekulo Shabbat”, as it were – "a day that is all Shabbat." What does this mean?

In creating the world, the Almighty split our experience into two realms. The first realm, the world we live in, we might call a world of "becoming." In this world, the only real lasting satisfaction that we can derive comes from the process of work itself -- through building the world around us; indeed, through building ourselves. While in this world, constructive engagement is its own reward. Vacations, while nice once in a while, eventually get boring. And the reason is simple: It is because this world was wired for labor, not for the enjoyment of the fruits of that labor. Yes, we can experience fleeting satisfaction when we complete a task. But then it’s on to the next thing or we quickly become bored.

There is, however, another realm. There is the Next World -- a world of "being." The world of "being" is wired not for work, but for the appreciation of our labors. All that we have accomplished; all the relationships that we worked so hard to cultivate in This World -- we experience them for what they truly are in the Next World.

If you think about it, it had to be this way. Imagine, for a moment, that the Almighty allowed us to truly experience the fruits of our labors in This World. Imagine that we could truly appreciate, in an enduring way, the satisfaction that comes from a hard won achievement. Imagine that in this world, we could fully and forever taste the rich spiritual joy that is the natural consequence of potential fulfilled. What would happen in such a world? You'd work at one thing, you'd achieve it, and then you'd spend the rest of your life reveling in your success. You'd never accomplish anything again. That wasn't what the Almighty had in mind. He was after something more productive than that.

We can now see why the idea of reward, the lasting enjoyment of any accomplishment, is so hard to come by in this world. Indeed, even the thought of an eternity of enjoyment seems "boring" to us; something we would want to avoid. Why? Because we are looking at it through the wrong lenses – through the lenses of "This World," a world wired for "becoming," not "being." When we actually experience this “reward”, though, we will ultimately experience it through different lenses -- the lenses of the Next World -- a world where working to "become more" is impossible; a world that is hard-wired for just for "being." When we experience the fruition of our work in the next world, we will do so within a world that allows us to truly tap into the timeless essence of this treasure.

So, while it may seem depressing that in This World, we can't really take much lasting pleasure in accomplishment -- we do have a consolation prize. We have Shabbat, a little taste of "being," right smack in this world of "becoming."

Shabbat is not your average, run of the mill, "day of rest." Remember: Jewish law permits you to shlep heavy tables up flights of stairs on Shabbat, but it forbids you to strike a match or gently plow the earth. The latter violates the sense of "rest" that Shabbat demands, while the former, while tiring, does not. Why? Because the Sabbath is not really about the kind of rest which helps you catch your breath. Instead, it is about a kind of rest that even the Master of the Universe would "need." The kind of rest that is not a break from work, but is the very purpose of work. The kind of rest that we might call, in the words of our Friday Night prayers, "tachlit shamayim va'aretz” -- the very purpose of Creation itself.

Indeed, it is this kind of rest is that saves creativity from death at its own hands...

The Death of Creativity

The act of creating, when you get right down to thinking about it, is seductive. It can perpetuate itself indefinitely. And when it does so, it will eventually, kill itself.

The examples are everywhere. The artist who always has one more brushstroke to add; the editor who needs to rearrange sentences one last time; the parent who has one last admonition to give a child who is no longer listening anymore. All of these are acts of creation gone bad. When the process of melachah, of improvement, never ends, it destroys itself. At some point, a creator needs to let go. Paradoxically, the final act of creating is ceasing to create.

A creator finds it hard to let go, because that seems like the end. But it is really just the beginning. When a creator stops creating, he is finally ready to realize the purpose of his labors. He is finally ready to let the thing be what it is – and to relate to that which he created.

Positive rest means stopping to tinker, and beginning to appreciate.

That's what positive rest means. Positive rest doesn't mean stopping to catch your breath. It means stopping to tinker, and beginning to appreciate. It means letting a thing just "be," and appreciating it for what it is in itself -- not for what I can still try and make it into.

This type of rest was inaugurated into the world on the first Sabbath, the Seventh Day of Creation. As the Sixth Day came to a close, the Almighty made a conscious, fateful decision to stop tinkering with the Universe. He looked at his handiwork and declared: hineh tov me'od – "indeed, it is very good." This proclamation signaled the Almighty's willingness to stop making the Universe "better," to stop fixing it, and to begin the process of relating to it for what it was.

The Almighty stopped not because the work was over. The work of improvement is never over. But He pulled back and left that work in our hands, in the hands of mankind. It was now up to us to pick up the mantle of melachah – to become earthly creators, to “guard the world and to work it”; to leave to the next generation a world better than the world we were given.

The Almighty, in His benevolence, decided to share with the earthly creators the gift of Shabbat. Through it, man learns to emulate His Creator, and to crown creativity with rest. Living as we do in "This World," a world wired for "work," it is tempting to overlook the importance of Shabbat. Its tempting to let melachah tempt us into thinking that there is nothing more to life. But if we fall into that trap, we will never really create anything. In the act of resting from melachah, I rest from the process of trying to shape the world around me to suit my needs. In this letting go, I am finally able to appreciate the world for what it is, not just for what it can do for me. On Shabbat, we escape the relentless need to keep on tinkering, and we taste the deliciousness of pure "being."

It’s not just the world that I learn to appreciate through rest; it's the people in that world as well. We all have our top five ways we would like to change our spouse to suit our needs. And most of us, in at least subtle ways, try to make these wishes known as gently as possible, of course. But as long as you are in the process of tinkering, trying to “improve her”, you are not in the process of appreciating. To let go is to make a powerful statement. That I love you, that I appreciate you -- right now, for who you are now. Not just for what I might make you into in the future.

God gave us a sliver of time, Shabbat, to help us make this stance a regular feature of our lives. When and if we do, we will have truly bought ourselves a piece of Heaven on earth.

Click here to order Rabbi Fohrman’s book The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond.

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