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Jewish World Review
Feb. 17, 2006
/ 19 Shevat, 5766
Why in heaven do we look forward to Heaven?
Rabbi David Fohrman
The final article of the series
What is life like in Heaven?
The answer is the world's best kept secret. Billions before us have died, but no one has yet come back to let us know what things look like from the other side. Jewish tradition, however, assures us that it's all worth it — that 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: For argument's sake, let's say you are quite righteous, and tremendous bliss awaits you in the World to Come. Still, 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 the most blissful thing in the world. Say, for example, you really enjoy cruises. Someone comes along and offers 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? Year after year, it's the same icebergs and the same old beluga whales. At some point, it would stop seeming like a vacation and it would start seeming laborious. At some point, it might 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 I left you with last week. Last week, we asked about the curious nature of work. Hundreds of hours of work don't seem justified by a fleeting few hours of reward. What we have seen now is that 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?
In a word, I think 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 Shabbes", as it were — "a day that is all Sabbath". This phrase, I think, encapsulates what it means to live in a world of "being". Let us examine what it might 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 Sabbath, a little taste of "being", right smack in this world of "becoming".
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We suggested a few weeks ago that Sabbath 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 Sabbath, but it forbids you to strike a match or gently plow the earth. The latter violates the sense of "rest" that Sabbath 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,
"tachlis shamayim va'aretz" — the very purpose of Creation itself.
Indeed, it is this kind of rest 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. 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.
That's what positive rest means. Positive rest doesn't mean stopping to catch your breath. It means stopping the tinkering, 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 humans, the earthly creators, a gift He called Sabbath. 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 Sabbath. It is 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 Sabbath, 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.
G-d gave us a sliver of time, Sabbath, 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.
And you can tell that to Joe on the plane.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes inspirational articles. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
To comment or ask a question, please
Is work really worth it?
Big Creator, little Creator
Why would the All-Powerful need to rest?
Joe on the Plane and the Meaning of Sabbath
© 2006, Rabbi David Fohrman