One reader wrote me:
Q. Does Judaism believe in an afterlife, and in heaven and hell? Do we live our «human» lives in order to go to this afterlife?
A. Yes, we do believe in the Afterlife. However, we do not believe in an eternal hell.
Okay, first, here is the timetable in a nutshell: We now live in what we call Olam Hazeh,
«This World.» The last part of Olam Hazeh will begin to change at some point, and we will eventually live in what will be called the Messianic Era. For this, the Messiah has to come, the Sanhedrin (highest Rabbinical Court) along with all subsidiary Rabbinical Courts will be reinstated, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt (but not necessarily in that order). All Jews will be gathered to the Land of Israel, and there will be peace all over earth.
All Jews will know all about Judaism, and there will be no estrangement or doubt. The Gentiles will not engage in warfare, and no one will have the need to fear anyone else.
We will all grow spiritually.
The change I mentioned above will not be a physical change. Nature will not change. Our attitudes will change, and we will all be more spiritual.
Of course, there is more to the Messianic Era, but this will do for now.
Eventually, Olam Hazeh will come to an end, when people have perfected themselves under the guidance of the King Messiah in accordance with the teachings of the Torah and Talmud.
The entire world will become dormant. All souls will leave this world, and reside in the
World of Souls. For a thousand years all the souls will absorb pure spirituality. After a
thousand years, the world will be rejuvenated, and all the souls will be brought down to earth again for the Resurrection.
Then will begin what we call Olam Habah — the World to Come.
Now, do we live in this world to gain the other? Yes and no. The Talmud teaches that This World has an advantage over the Next World. It is only in This World that we can serve G-d through adversity, overcome temptation, and fulfill the Commandments of G-d. The Next World is for the reward. It is only in This World that we can actually perform the Commandments.
On the other hand, this world is only a corridor that leads to the main «banquet hall,» so to speak. The Talmud says: «Rabbi Yaakov says, This World is the antechamber that leads to the Next World. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so you can enter the banquet hall.»
And then The Talmud continues: «Rabbi Yaakov also used to say, Better one hour in
repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life in the World to Come. And better one hour of tranquility of spirit in the World to Come than all the life of this world.»
One hour of the World to Come contains more pleasure in it than all the pleasure of an entire life in this world. But we cannot get a share in the World to Come unless we repent in this world, for it is only in this world that we can repent and do good deeds.
But nevertheless, says the Talmud, «one should serve G-d not like a hired worker who works for the reward, but be like a devoted servant who does not work for reward but out of love for the master.» We are to do good not because it will give us reward, but out of love for G-d, Who desires that we do good.
And the Talmud also says about this world:
Rabbi Akiva used to say, «Everything is given as a loan, which we are obligated to repay. Good deeds and faith are held in trust and as repayment. The store is open, and the Merchant (i.e., G-d) gives credit. The ledger is open, and every transaction is being recorded. Whoever wants to borrow may come and borrow. The collectors make their rounds constantly, and they take payment whether we realize it or not. Everything is done «by the book,» so to speak, and the legal procedure is always correct. Everything is prepared for the feast (i.e., the World to Come).»
It is important to understand that the best motive for keeping the Torah and Mitzvos (Commandments) is to fulfill Hashem’s will. The next-best motive for keeping the Torah and Mitzvos is in order to come close to Hashem, and to thus become holy. Another good motive, but certainly not as good, is to fulfill the Torah and Mitzvos in order to get rewarded for it. That’s obviously not the best motive, but it is an acceptable one. It is doubtful that too many of us today actually have a better motive than that. I am sure there are a few people who have so perfected themselves that they actually have the best motive, but most of us are not able to reach that level, and it would be unhealthy to try.
One of the best ways to learn more about the things I have written about in this article is to study a section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avos, or Chapters of the Fathers. Some call it Ethics of the Fathers. This deals a great deal with this subject, among others. A good translation and explanation to get is the one by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, called Ethics of the Talmud, published by Moznaim Publishing Corporation. My copy lists their phone number as (212) 438-7680, and their address as 4304 12th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11219. It comes in paperback also, and is worth the few bucks it costs. Also, check out a great Jewish book store called Tiferes Judaica.