Heaven and Hell

Many years ago, a young visitor (not Jewish) to my synagogue asked me, “Rabbi, do Jews believe we are going to hell?” I admit to my initial surprise at this question. Yet my questioner, a polite and inquisitive child, was earnest in her desire to know. How to explain to her that for Jews, there is no hell? Our Sages spoke of a purgatory of limited duration. We believe in spiritual immortality and physical resurrection in the world-to-come, but not in hell. For us God is a loving and forgiving Creator and Sovereign. We place the greater emphasis on striving to live righteously in this world and on our responsibility to rectify our wrongs while we live. Hence teshuvah (repentance) figures prominently into Jewish teachings.

I can appreciate how the concept of hell inspires people to pursue self-improvement and righteousness in this life. I was saddened, however, that this child had been taught to use her religious beliefs to judge unkindly religious traditions different from her own. Her pastor, standing beside us both when the question was asked, smiled gently and said to me, “I’m not the only influence in her life.” Together, we did our best to respond to her question.

Had there not been a crowd around and had I had time to speak with this child privately, I would have told her this story that I heard long ago. I suspect it was first told to respond to just such a question as our young visitor asked me.
A man once asked God about heaven and hell.

"I will show you hell," God said, and took the man into a room. A large banquet table in the center was laden with every conceivable delicacy. The sight and smell of the foods were intoxicating. Around the table sat miserable, famished, and desperate people. Each was holding a spoon with a long handle. The spoons were strapped to their arms both above and below the elbow, so that they could not bend their elbows and bring the spoons to their mouths. As a result, they were starving.

"Now I will show you heaven," God said, and the man found himself in an identical room with an identical banquet table laden with a magnificent array of foods. Around this table were arrayed people equipped with long-handled spoons strapped both above and below the elbow. Yet these people were happy, smiling, and well nourished.

"Same table, same food, same spoons. Why are things different here?" asked the man.

"Ah, but there is one important difference," God said in response. "Here, in heaven the people feed one another."

We can create heaven and hell right here in this world for one another by the way we treat each other. We have the ability to cause suffering and pain, and we have the ability to bring comfort and redemption. God endows each of us with the capacity for kindness, compassion, generosity, patience, and courage. It is for us to choose to live by these values and, when we stray from them, to do teshuvah (repentance) and try again. The challenge of living in covenant with God is to pick up the spoon and feed someone else.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.