Thursday, June 26, 2008

Heaven and Hell : Claiming Our Lot and Taming Our Portion

Years ago, I heard this story from Shmuel Klatzkin in Boston one Shabbos afternoon. At a time when I was converting to Judaism, he and his wife offered friendship and encouragement that I recall with fondness years later.
The story he told was from the Midrash, or the narrative portion of the Talmud. In it, a man was shown both heaven and hell. When he looked into hell, there were long banquet tables laden with every sort of delicacy. Seated at each table were guests, whose enjoyment of the feast was markedly diminished by their lack of elbows. Unable to feed themselves, the banquet was a scene of total chaos. Lunging at the food like dogs, their faces were covered in soup and gravy. The sounds of choking and the clattering of fine china competed with the orchestra for the attention of the stunned visitor.
Trembling with shock at the bizarre spectacle, the observer asked his heavenly escort to show him heaven. Walking through celestial gardens, they approached yet another banquet hall. After they entered, the observer looked into yet another ballroom. He was breathless with shock at the sight that greeted him but continued to stare in fascination at the diners before him.
The banquet in heaven was no less opulent than the one in hell. The diners had the same anatomical peculiarity as the inhabitants of hell. They had no elbows, and could therefore not feed themselves. Despite this, the table settings retained their orderly placement in front of the guests. There was not a stain to be found on the table cloths. The orchestra played with no disruption from distressed patrons. What made heaven different was the behavior of the diners. Unlike hell, the inhabitants of paradise took quick stock of the situation. They made a quick adjustment to the new garb of their earthly souls. Unlike the purgatorial internees, they took it upon themselves to feed each other. The low steady hum of conversation included a layer of verbal communication necessary to facilitate sustenance.
The observer reflected deeply upon the strange things he saw during his visit. He interpreted the entire time he spent in other worlds like a dream with a message rather than in the manner of an ordered physical universe.
After his visit, his view of "haolam hazeh" of this world changed radically. He saw that the goodness of the individual and the consequent societal decency was in the hands of humans. He saw heaven and hell not as places to which docile passengers are transported but places that are built according to a divine blueprint. He started to look not at the horizon but in the mirror. As he grew old and looked at the shadows of mortality lengthening over him, his thoughts shifted from what they had once been. His new focus was not that which was his to inherit, but that which his to tame.

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