Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Goes to Heaven?

According to Jewish tradition, who is guaranteed a place in Heaven?

The Orthodox?


The Modern Orthodox?


The Conservative?


The Reform?


How about those on the political Right or Left?


So who exactly will go to Heaven?

Good Jews, and good non-Jews.

Heaven does not know of people based upon denomination or political party - it knows only of God's people, and goodness.

The opening to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states, "Kol Yisrael Yesh Lahem Cheilek La'olam Haba" - all Israel has a share in the World to Come. They base this teaching on the verse from Isaiah 60:21, which references the righteousness of the Jewish people. This is not because we are inherently better than non-Jews; it's only because of God's kindness. God judges all people by their actions, but has graced us with the assurance that we will be rewarded for being His representatives here on earth (as long as we don't engage in one of the extreme sins that causes us to lose that distinction). In addition, all decent and ethical non-Jews will go to Heaven. Our understanding of God is that He is a just and merciful Creator, who will rightly reward anyone for the good deeds they have accumulated during their lifetime.

Unfortunately, the Jewish concept of the afterlife is often misunderstood. In fact, there are many who actually think that Jews don't even believe in an afterlife. However, this is only because we do not overly concern ourselves with it. The next world is not our primary focus because we have so much to accomplish while still in this world. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that the ultimate test for human beings is ethical - not theological. To the best of my knowledge, Judaism is the only major religion which has always maintained that actions determine one's eternal destiny - not theology. It's all about behavior.

However, if all Jews are guaranteed a place in Heaven, what incentive is there to perform any good deeds? The Chofetz Chaim answers this by way of a parable. There was once a wealthy businessman in Russia named Yisrael Brodsky, who employed hundreds of people. He was also a philanthropist who supported many Torah institutions, as well as relatives and community members whose finances had taken a turn for the worse. All the people he supported received a monthly check. One day, Mr. Brodsky came to visit one of his factories. The managers showed him around and introduced him to many of the workers. When Mr. Brodsky approached one of the people (who happened to be a non-working relative) and asked what he did there, the man replied, "I take a check." Everyone broke into laughter. The Chofetz Chaim concluded that such will be the case in the World to Come. Any Jew who claims their share solely because they happened to be Jewish will suffer an eternal embarrassment.

While all Jews have a spot in Heaven, the level of that share is dependent upon what we achieve during our lifetimes. The greater the actions, the greater the reward. The primary message for all of us is to simply do what is right, and God can be trusted to reward us with exactly what we deserve when our time on earth is done. Another lesson is that if Heaven's standards find it unnecessary to distinguish between Jews, then why is it that we so easily separate each other based upon anything other than objective ethical concerns?

Ironically, we can rectify our mistreatment of fellow Jews by more closely following Heaven's guidelines here on earth.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Common Sense

There is a great story attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. A young man once came to him in order to receive semicha (rabbinical ordination). Since semicha is typically given after the applicant is tested on their knowledge of the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Rabbi Soloveitchik began by asking the student to name its five volumes. Figuring this was a trick question, the young man answered, "But there are only four volumes." The rabbi responded, "No. There is a fifth, unwritten volume. It's called seichel (common sense), and unless you know this volume, the other four volumes will not help you at all." The lesson he was teaching this young man can also be applied to anyone engaged in any other area of life: without common sense, a person can have a great deal of knowledge and still be a fool.

The Talmud (Tamid 32a) echoes this sentiment when it states, "Who is wise? One who foresees the consequences of his actions." This is not some sort of mystical explanation; it's actually quite logical. If we desire to become wise, we must understand the effects our actions will have on other people. Consequently, we should not follow the letter of the law if it will lead to the opposite of its intent. For example, the Torah states that it is forbidden to strike one's parents (Exodus 21:15), and it becomes a serious offense if blood is drawn. This might lead someone without common sense to believe that a child can never draw blood from a parent - even to save their life. However, Jewish law permits a child to cause a parent to bleed during a surgical procedure, for example. The Sages base their provision on the verse, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Just as you would want your parent to improve your health even though it involves drawing blood, you must do the same for them if the circumstances ever arise.

A different but related example comes by way of the controversial mosque and Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero. Obviously, the planners have the constitutional right to do so, but just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Or to put another way, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Often, the only way of deciding whether or not to engage in a specific action is by utilizing common sense. In this case, it would be best if those defending the site (many of whom may even have good intentions) would actually practice what they preach. They claim this proposed mosque is all about reconciliation and tolerance, but all they have caused is division among the American public and intolerance toward those who pose legitimate concerns. Thus, common sense would dictate that they back away from a plan that has already led to the opposite of its stated intent.

It's unfortunate that people tend to overlook the importance of common sense. Human beings desperately need it for their own sake as well as for the sake of others. As the term itself implies, if this character trait would be more common in people, there would be more sense in the world.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Cure Precedes the Sickness

Something big is on the horizon. At some point in the near future, someone with moral courage (presumably Israel or the United States) will have to do something. It might happen tomorrow or two years from now, but with every day that passes it becomes even more inevitable. A brutal, hostile and apocalyptically-led country is on the precipice of attaining a nuclear weapon. Iran has made it abundantly clear that they plan to attack Israel first, and then go after America and the rest of the world. While we should obviously support all those who are sincerely trying to stop Iran, there is another issue with which to concern ourselves.

In a prophetic but unclear message from our Sages, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) states that there will be a confrontation between Persia and Rome/Edom, which is understood in modern times as Iran and the West. There is disagreement as to how this confrontation will play out, but that is not what I want to focus on. The most striking thing about this prediction is that it is stated directly opposite Yoma 9b - where the Sages articulate that God allowed the Beit Hamikdash to be destroyed because of sinat chinam (for further analysis, click here). In my opinion, these two passages are connected, just like the pages on which they are written.

Iran's development of a nuclear bomb is an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. Similarly, sinat chinam has proven to be an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. From the end of the Temple era until this very day, intramural hatred has proven to be a problem so serious that it rivals even the destructiveness of anti-Semitic regimes.

Just as we have to pursue every possible means through which to stop Iran's nuclear threat, we also have to pursue every possible means through which to stop fellow Jews from engaging in unnecessary hatred and division. And just as we are taught that Iran will become a worldwide problem at the End of Days, so too will the Beit Hamikdash be rebuilt at the End of Days. (Just for clarification, this term does not mean the world is going to end; it simply means the world will enter a period of goodness, peace and knowledge of God.)

Perhaps if we correct our age-old problem of sinat chinam, God will take care of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons Himself. In other words, if we go out of our way to be good to one another, God will go out of His way to be good to us. In this instance, He could very well eliminate the Iranian nuclear plants via an earthquake or some other seemingly natural occurrence. In any event, what becomes clear is that God desires His children to act decently toward one another. In a strange but beautiful way, a situation seems to be developing in which we can only turn to God and each other. Take everything else away, and this is all we have left.

As the rabbinic dictum goes, the cure always precedes the sickness. However, it's up to us to discover the cure. In this case, I believe the problem is alluded to on Yoma 10a and the answer is alluded to on Yoma 9b. Of course, this is just a theory, but it appears to be a call to our generation: Take care of problems that are within your control (i.e. treat all fellow Jews decently) and God will take care of problems that are beyond your control (i.e. destroy all evil on earth).

If this is indeed the cure, it's time to implement it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are Humility and Self-Esteem Contradictory?

The Chofetz Chaim was once traveling by train to a Jewish community to give a lecture. A man sat down next to him during the trip and started a conversation. When the Chofetz Chaim asked where he was heading, the man replied, "I'm going into town to hear the Chofetz Chaim speak. He's the greatest tzaddik (righteous person) in the Jewish world today." Embarrassed by what he was hearing, the Chofetz Chaim told the man, "People exaggerate about his greatness. I know him very well and he's not that great." The man became infuriated by what he was hearing and slapped the Chofetz Chaim in the face. That night, the man was horrified when he came to the lecture and realized that the person he hit was actually the Chofetz Chaim. As soon as the lecture was over, the man pleaded for forgiveness. The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, "There's no need for forgiveness - you were defending me. In fact, you taught me a great lesson: my whole life I've been teaching people not to defame others; now I've learned that it's also wrong to defame yourself."

Humility isn't just about acknowledging that which you are not, it's also about recognizing that which you are. Thus, Moses is described as the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3). Yet, he could have also been referred to as the most courageous or the most compassionate human being of all time. Why does the Torah go out of its way to only mention this characteristic? Given the above definition of humility, it becomes clear as to why this was the case. Moses was quite aware of his weaknesses (including having a speech impediment), but at the same time also understood that his strengths put him in the position to lead the Jewish people. A lesser person would have either failed to acknowledge their weaknesses, or worse yet, would have downplayed the strengths they did possess in order to avoid greater responsibility.

Here's a clip that sums up this issue very well:

As mentioned in the video, humility should never be confused with low self-esteem. Low self-esteem demoralizes people, while humility inspires people to better themselves. Therefore, the true opposite of humility isn't self-esteem but arrogance. Arrogance is the terrible character trait that convinces people they are God's gift to mankind, have all the answers, and don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. On the other extreme, humility is the character trait that allows us to recognize our weaknesses - as well as our strengths - and cultivates the realization that God created us with a certain set of skills for a reason. For some people, the simple acknowledgment of what they can't do humbles them. For others, knowing what they can do humbles them even more.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Comparing Yourself to Others

There is a famous story told about the great Chasidic leader, Rabbi Zusia. One day, he was all pale and fearful. "Rav Zusia, what's the matter? You look frightened!," his followers asked. "The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that will one day be asked about my life." His followers were puzzled. "Rav Zusia, you are so pious, scholarly and humble. What question would you possibly be afraid to answer?" Rabbi Zusia turned his gaze toward heaven and said, "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'" His followers persisted, "So what will they ask you?" Rabbi Zusia sighed, "And I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people to the Promised Land?'" Finally, one of the followers demanded, "So what will they ask you?" He replied, "They will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming' - they will ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'"

The moral of the story is obvious: God wants us to be ourselves. If we were supposed to be more like someone else, God would have created us with their personal qualities. Instead, He gave each of us a specific type of personality, along with a certain set of talents, that would enable us to fulfill our individual mission in life. Each one of us has everything we need to succeed in that particular mission, and whatever we don't have yet can be attained through hard work and dedication. Nobody is good at everything, but everybody is good at something. We should simply develop whatever skills we do have to the best of our ability, and not worry about what someone else is doing. If we truly inculcate this value, jealousy will slowly cease to exist.

Unfortunately, human nature makes us believe that the grass is greener on the other side. Perhaps we think that another person's marriage is better, or their physical appearance is more attractive, or they have a better financial situation, or are smarter than us - the list is endless! To ponder such things is a waste of time, not to mention a complete exercise in futility. There is another famous Chasidic tale which states that if everyone put their troubles into a hat - and had to choose between their own and those of others - everyone would choose the ones they already have. It's important to remember that all people have problems, whether physical, financial, interpersonal or otherwise. Consequently, if you think someone else's life is perfect, that only shows you don't really know them.

So how can we stop comparing ourselves to other people? Rashi's commentary on the words "U'vo Tidbakun" - "And to Him shall you cleave" (Deuteronomy 13:5) provides us with a possible answer. Rashi states that the only way a human being can cleave to God is by emulating His characteristics. Just as He performs kind deeds, so should we; just as He buries the dead (as in the case of Moses), so should we; and just as He visits the sick (as in the case of Abraham), so should we. In other words, our actions should only be compared to those of God - not other people. Because, ultimately, God only wants you to be [insert your name here].

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This Law Can Change Your Life

There are certain laws we all have to follow - such as paying taxes - that will not necessarily make us better people. However, there are other laws - when properly understood and implemented - that can change our lives. One of those laws is expressed in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b), which unfortunately is known by few and practiced by even fewer. It states:

"One is not allowed to ask a storekeeper the price of an item if he knows he will not purchase it."

I put the last part in bold to emphasize the point of this law. While there is nothing wrong with comparison shopping, there is everything wrong with stealing someone's time. In addition, we cannot falsely raise a person's hopes (in this particular case, those of a storekeeper or an employee working at a store). Keeping these two approaches in mind, there are many different ways to apply this law in everyday life. Here is a video that sums it up very well:

As mentioned in the video, beholding to the spirit of this law keeps a person ethical and honest. But above everything else, it builds character in an individual as well as goodwill between individuals. In a world filled with people who are unethical and dishonest, we need this law to be observed now more than ever. Contrary to those who like to rationalize that the ends always justify the means, our Sages teach us that the means matter significantly. Whether we are dealing with a clerk at a gas station or someone in our personal lives, we must always remember that they are human beings created in the image of God who deserve the same kind of courtesy we desire for ourselves.