By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Author’s note: Rabbi Israel Lashak, the director of DATA’s JEX College Program and regional director of NCSY, received several penetrating questions from a student who attended one of his recent Israel trips. He forwarded them to me, and we shall spend the next few columns addressing the thoughtful questions of this deeply thinking young man. My thanks to Rabbi Lashak for sharing these wonderful questions with me and all of you.
Dear Rabbi Lashak,
Thank you for enhancing that amazing trip to Israel. You helped me develop a deeper appreciation of my Jewish identity, which I now embrace more than ever. I hope one day I’ll get around to studying the whole Torah. But in the meantime, I’m wondering if you could help me with some questions that have been bugging me for years:
a). Does one need to believe in the Jewish God to go to heaven, or can one just be a good person?
b). In the afterlife, do people still have the free will to do good or bad things? If so, then are there any punishments in heaven for bad deeds?
c). You said that the inevitability of death gives meaning to our lives here on earth. Since we know we’re going to die someday, we have to make the most of the precious little time we have here on earth. But if our souls will experience an eternal afterlife, does their existence become meaningless then? I don’t get it.
— Jonathan W.
Please allow me to address the questions you sent to Rabbi Lashak:
a). We believe that all goodness flows from God, the creator of goodness. Heaven is nothing other than a place where people connect to God on the deepest level; that connection itself is the very reward of heaven. The Jewish belief is that one will not be able to enjoy closeness to God in heaven unless he or she believes in the very God they will be connected to there. Heaven only works for those who believe in it, and without God, there is no heaven.
b). We believe that free choice only exists in this world. The years of life in this world that are allotted to each individual are his or her sole opportunity to make choices. Heaven is the place we receive the reward for the choices we made in this world. It is only a place of reward, not a place for choosing or performing new good or bad deeds.
c). The meaning of life in this world is very different than that of the afterlife. What I believe Rabbi Lashak meant was that this world is fraught with struggles between good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, laziness vs. the fortitude to work hard to do the right things. It is also filled with a lack of clarity as to what is, indeed, the right or wrong thing to do in many situations.
There’s often great confusion as to the purpose of life itself. The inevitability of eventual death forces us to clarify and crystalize our thoughts and find a clear path and purpose, because we know we don’t have forever to keep groping in the dark. This will lead us to making the most of our time here.
The afterlife, which has none of the above obfuscation, carries its own purpose and meaning as a place of eternal reward without the need for a sobering message of an end to come.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.