You Can Always Improve
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz frequently said: Be especially careful if you feel you have gone down in your spiritual level. There is danger when one feels he has failed spiritually. He is likely to give up completely, and in panic might commit many wrongdoings.
Even if you feel you are on a low rung, strengthen yourself wherever you presently are. If you take an optimistic view of your situation and feel confident that you can improve, you will be able to elevate yourself.
Is this life all that there is -- or is there something beyond our earthly existence? Does it make a difference what you do in this lifetime -- or can one do whatever he desires and just obey the "11th Commandment" (Thou shall not get caught!)?
The bible teaches that we are more than just a body. "And the Almighty formed man from dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life' (Genesis 2:7). On this verse, the Zohar states that 'one who blows, blows from within himself,' indicating that the soul is actually part of God's essence. God is eternal, the soul is eternal. King Solomon wrote, 'The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it' (Ecclesiastes 12:17).
Intuitively we know this. Every species acts solely for it survival -- except mankind. We will sacrifice ourselves to save someone else or for an ideal. Cows may be content to chew their cud and be contented. We are driven to have meaning and purpose in our lives.
Moshe Maimonides, the Rambam, set forth "13 Essential Beliefs of Spirituality". The Tenth and Eleventh Principles state that G-d is aware of our actions and that He rewards and punishes us according to our actions. Since we do not see evil always being punished or goodness always being rewarded, it is logical -- that if there is a good and just G-d -- that there is a World of Souls, an afterlife which is the great equalizer. There, evil which has not been punished in this world is punished and good deeds which have not been rewarded are rewarded.
How is the soul judged? For every commandment one fulfilled and every transgression that one refrained, there is a spiritual reward of feeling a closeness to the Almighty. For the transgressions, one's soul is sentenced to Gehenom; one can picture Gehenom as a "spiritual laundry" for the soul. For up to 12 months the soul goes through a purification process. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler likened the experience to having a movie of one's "greatest" transgressions -- and then having all of a person's loved ones ... parents, grandparents, spouse, children ... watching it with you. Imagine the embarrassment. Embarrassment can be a worse punishment than devils with pitchforks!
There are allusions to an afterlife in the Bible, though it is not explicitly stated or described (the Talmud, Sanhedrin, Chapter 10 called Chelek, does discuss the afterlife). When the patriarch Jacob died, the Torah relates, "... he died and was gathered to his people" (Genesis 49:33). The Torah then informs us of the 40 day embalming period and the 70 days Egypt mourned Jacob before Joseph received permission to bury his father in the Ma'arat HaMachpela, the burial cave in Hebron. What does the Torah then mean that "he was gathered to his people"? It is a reference that his soul was gathered to the afterlife.
Later in the book of Numbers we have the story of Bilaam, the evil non--Jewish prophet, who hires himself out to the King Balak to curse the Jews. Instead of cursing the Jews, his prophecy blesses the Jews. He proclaims, "Let me die the death of the righteous and let my end be like his (the righteous Jews)" (Numbers 23:10). Do the righteous die any better than the wicked? Bilaam was saying, "Let me live my life on my terms and according to my desires, but when it comes to the afterlife, let my soul be rewarded as the righteous are rewarded.
I think that these two allusions are valid, but not emotionally compelling. If the afterlife is such an essential part of Jewish belief, why does the Torah only reference it obliquely? The Torah could have described the next world in detail, yet it refrained from painting a picture. Why?
There are two reasons: (1) The Torah is a guidebook for THIS life. It sets forth instructions on how to live a meaningful, holy life and how to improve yourself and the world. The Almighty wants us to focus on our obligations in this life; the afterlife will take care of itself. (2) Even if the Torah described in detail an afterlife -- how would one verify its existence? No one has ever returned from the next world to confirm or deny that vision.
Other religions paint a picture of the afterlife one will receive. The Talmud teaches, "He who wishes to lie says his witnesses are far away." For example, "I paid back the money I owed you, but my witnesses happen to be visiting Europe" -- or "Have faith in our religion and you will get Heaven." There is no way of validating the claim.
While Judaism believes in an Afterlife, a World to Come, the Torah makes no promises that are "far away." The Torah tells you about rewards and punishments in THIS world -- in response to your actions. You need go no further than this verse from the Torah: "If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in your land. I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you ... I will make you fruitful and increase you..." (Lev. 26:3--9).
Why is reward and punishment so important for us? As Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg teaches: "A world without reward and punishment is a world of utter indifference, and indifference is the ultimate rejection. One cannot serve indifference. In order for there to be a relationship between G-d and man, G-d must react to man's actions. Our awareness of this reaction, reward or punishment, informs us that the Almighty cares, that our actions make a difference. Without reward and punishment life has no meaning -- for what man would or would not do would make no difference." (Rabbi Yakov Weinberg, Fundamentals and Faith).
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