One day we asked our Grade 9 students to count the number of times the phrases “Olam Habba” (the World to Come), “Gan Eden” (Paradise) or “Gehinnom” (Hell) appeared in the Torah. A bar of chocolate was the promised prize for the finder of the correct answer. Chumashim were opened at Parshat Ki Tavo, Bechukotai and the second paragraph of the Shema. The clock started ticking and, to everyone’s amazement, no one was able to find even one mention!!
The chocolate bar was divided between all the students, as we explained how the Torah does not, in fact, promise us either Gan Eden or Gehinnom in recompense for our deeds.
On a cursory reading, we notice that all the blessings and curses are material in nature – proper sustenance, health, wealth, dignity, triumph and might of the nation. Where are all the promises of a world in which everything is good and everyone feasts on the Leviathan? Where is the promise of the spiritual World to Come? Surely we were brought up and educated on the belief in the World to Come?
Two fundamental differences exist between the reward and punishment promised in this world and the reward and punishment promised in the World to Come:
The first difference lies in the essence of the reward: material reward as opposed to spiritual reward. The Torah describes at length the rain, the bounty of the crops, the military triumphs etc. – in contrast to the World to Come which is full of Torah study and the splendor of the Shechina (God’s Diving Presence).
The second difference is the target audience: in this world the entire nation receives its reward – the Jewish People as a whole, living in the Land of Israel. In contrast, in the World to Come the reward is given to individuals, each receiving the reward to which he is entitled. The entire Tanach focuses on what happens to the People of God and deals mainly with the manifestation of the Shechina on the nation. God’s Divine justice will manifest itself in the form of a broad national blessing when we keep His Mitzvot, while curses will befall us once we forsake these. The Divine message is thus revealed to all the nations of the world: the physical, economic and political successes of the Jewish People are intertwined with the nation’s spiritual level… This being the case, where does the World to Come fit into all this? The system of reward and punishment to be requited to individuals supplements the national system of recompense to enable even individuals to receive their natural entitlement.
The Torah only describes the promises in this world and by so doing it broadcasts one clear and unambiguous message: the goal of Am Yisrael is to live a full and normal lifestyle under the Shechina and around the Temple. Hakadosh Baruch Hu requires us to be a people which operates in the world of material bounty, with justice and kindness, in holiness and purity, in which the living God walks in its midst. Our Torah is a living Torah. It is connected to, derives from and leads to life, in the literal meaning of the word, and is not locked up in any ivory spiritual tower. The living Torah is the embodiment of God’s supreme and complete Providence over us.
According to Rav Kook (Orot Hakodesh 3: 176-178), the light of the World to Come is able to shine in this world. The supreme closeness to God is attainable even in this world, once the entire nation has become close to the living God. Because of our many sins, our Temple has been destroyed and we have been exiled from our Land, our nationhood has been lost and we have become severed as a nation from healthy living on our homeland. The mission that remains for the nation in exile is for each individual to take action to perfect his ways. This being the case, great emphasis is placed on the appropriate reward for individuals – the World to Come.
In our times, we are returning to our roots, to the land and to our existence as a nation. Once again the blessings given in our Parsha assume significance on the day-to-day existential plane. The promises for an abundance of water, for security and for national pride appear more current and essential than ever before.
May we merit to see the fulfillment in us of these blessings, speedily in our days. Amen!