The Mystery of the World to Come
"[Scripture] refers to the World to Come using many different allegorical
names: 'the mountain of G-d,' 'His holy place,' 'the way of holiness,' 'the
courtyards of G-d,' 'the tent of G-d,' 'the pleasantness of G-d,' 'the
sanctuary of G-d,' 'the house of the L-rd,' 'the gate of the L-rd.' The
Sages referred, by way of metaphor, to this good which is in store for the
righteous a 'feast.' And they generally refer to it as 'the World to Come.'"
This week's law continues to discuss the World to Come. As the Rambam taught
us earlier, the afterlife is a wholly spiritual existence entirely beyond
man's capacity to comprehend. It is the ultimate bliss -- to such a degree
that it defies meaningful analogy in the world of the physical.
Likewise, this week the Rambam lists several of the metaphors Scripture
employs when referring to the World to Come. (Each one is a quote from a
verse; I didn't bother quoting every source.) And each one is completely
cryptic -- a simple phrase implying closeness to G-d and nothing further.
For again, there is no possible way to bring down such an experience into
terms man could comprehend. Referring to the World to Come as the sort of
thrills we can bite into -- a snazzy sports car which can go from 0 to 100
miles in X seconds, a chocolate sundae smothered in whipped cream and
dripping with chocolate syrup -- just wouldn't do it -- and in fact would be
quite demeaning. Likewise, picturing the righteous in heaven in some more
ethereal way -- as angels floating from cloud to cloud wearing their halos
and playing their harps -- would be equally meaningless -- and would
doubtfully win very many adherents, for that matter.
Rather, the Torah left the World to Come completely out of the picture,
since it really cannot enter the picture at this stage of man's existence.
As the Talmud (Brachos 34b) put it, all the prophets prophesied about the
era of the Messiah alone. Regarding the World to Come, however, "An eye did
not see it, L-rd, other than You, what He will do for those who look to Him"
More generally, the Torah is primarily a book which discusses this world --
how we are to behave, what is the purpose of life, how to be good human
beings, and how this world will cooperate with us (bringing the rain and the
crops, etc.) if we obey G-d's will. But the World to Come: "an eye has not
seen it." No one of flesh and blood *could* see something so sublime and
exalted. It is out of the realm of this world; a practical book such as the
Written Torah wouldn't touch it.
A curious and ironic side-effect of this is that critical scholars of
religion actually claimed that Judaism initially didn't "know about" the
World to Come. It's not mentioned at all in the earlier books of the Torah
and at best received peripheral mention in a few of the later. Thus,
propound such scholars, the Jews must have "picked up" the idea from
religions and cultures they were exposed to during the course of their exile.
(Likewise, to my ongoing surprise, I've found that many unlearned Jews
literally do not know that Judaism believes in an afterlife. Somehow, it's
become much more associated with Christian doctrine. I've always found that
rather shocking, especially considering that Christianity inherited
practically the entire idea -- as well as a great many of the details --
directly from us.)
In fact, one of the great medieval thinkers, R. Yehuda HaLevi of 12th
century Spain, discusses a related point in his seminal work, _The Kuzari_
(I gave a lengthy introduction to this work in a past class:
www.torah.org/learning/mlife/LORch3-7.html). In Essay 1 (104-110) he notes
that other religions tend to place much greater emphasis on the World to
Come than Judaism. They focus much more on it and appear to promise far
more. Judaism, by contrast, is curiously silent about the World to Come. The
best it seems to promise the righteous is little more than the creature
comforts of this world -- peace, rain in its time, bountiful crops -- as
well as the very vague promise of G-d dwelling among us and not abhorring us
(see Levit. 26:11-12). Can't the Torah be a little more specific? And again,
why the marked de-emphasis of the true reward of the World to Come?
The Kuzari explains very simply. Other religions promise the World to Come
for the simple reason that they *can't* promise anything in this world --
without running the serious risk of creating terrible theological dilemmas
for themselves as soon as their promises do not materialize. So instead,
they promised the moon -- right around the corner. They guaranteed
everything they could dream up -- spiritual ecstasy, physical pleasures, all
sorts of sumptuous, majestic delights. And why not? No one would ever come
back to disprove them. So, in lieu of any unreliable promises of reward in
this world, they went further and further overboard in pumping up the future
one. They really had no choice and nothing else to offer, so they made the
most of what they *could* safely offer -- 100% guaranteed!
Continues the Kuzari, Judaism, by contrast, did much better. It promised
here and now -- contentment, rain in its time, success in this world, Divine
protection, prophecy, and G-d visibly dwelling among us in the Temple.
Judaism teaches us that G-d rewards us immediately. Our lives will be
better, happier, and more successful if we obey G-d's will. To be sure, in
times of exile, when G-d's Name is hidden, it takes more of an effort to see
this. But G-d is there. Reward, punishment, and spiritual bliss are not
things of an unknowable future world. We can have them right here and now if
we are only perceptive enough to see them. And G-d guarantees that we will.
The Kuzari takes this an important step further. When we think about it, the
bliss of the World to Come is not an entirely different experience from what
we may merit down here. Sure, it's too lofty for us to really comprehend,
but it boils down to one thing -- closeness to G-d. And that is precisely
what we'll enjoy in this world if we merit it. G-d will send prophets to
lead us, He will watch over us with His Divine providence, and His Divine
Presence will visibly dwell among us in the Temple. And even more
fundamentally, we'll feel *good* -- spiritual and godly -- when we emulate G-d.
Thus, G-d is in truth promising us a taste of the World to Come right down
here. And so, in a sense, unlike other religions which relegate all the
promised reward to some obscure, distant universe, Judaism teaches us that
we can begin to build paradise right down here on earth -- one which will
slowly grow into the true World to Come as the world progresses.
It should at the same time be noted that most of the more colorful metaphors
Christianity (not Islam) gives for the World to Come do appear in Jewish
sources. Even so, Judaism does not emphasize it. Our religion is advanced
enough and sophisticated enough to recognize that no metaphor, no matter how
magnificent, would do the World to Come any sort of justice. Thus, rather
than attempting to describe it in woefully inadequate terms, the Torah
leaves the issue aside. It's G-d's dwelling, His mountain, His courtyard --
whatever. But more than closeness to G-d the Torah does not even attempt to
convey. Too many analogies and images would only bring down the World to
Come to the minds of physical man in some grotesque misconstruction. Better
to leave it where it is -- in the pristine, blissful state it deserves. For
"an eye did not see it, L-rd, other than You, what He will do for those who
look to Him."
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org