"Heaven's Door" is actually a novella. So there aren't many chapters left. Then, with G-d's help, we will start serializing another novel. Lucky you!
Chapter Eight - The World of Souls
Luckily, I remembered not to drink anything in the morning. It felt weird not having breakfast. Not just because it came with the hotel room, but it was like something to do, something that I was so used to, I didn’t know what to do with myself instead. Not that I felt hungry for food. It was more like a hunger to do something, to feel alive, to have whatever high you get through eating.
Knowing that I had to get to Saba Yosef for the day’s first conversation helped put the thought of food out of my mind. Having become kind of compulsive by nature, I didn’t want the desire for food to become an obsession that I would have to battle throughout the day. So after showering, I drove back to the cottage in the woods, arriving well before our appointment time of eight o’clock.
When no one answered my knocking, I opened the door myself. Across the rabbi’s study, inside the small synagogue, a group of men were finishing their prayers. I sat in the anteroom, where I had the day before, and watched them take off their prayer shawls and the little black boxes and straps called tefillin. Saba Yosef sat at the front of the synagogue near the ark, draped in a large white prayer shawl. He spoke for about ten minutes in Hebrew, as if he were giving a class, then each of the congregants approached him to kiss his hand and receive a blessing.
Now that Saba Yosef had opened the Pandora’s Box of religion, I had a lot of questions to ask. Like I said, religion had not been a part of my life, so I wasn’t on familiar ground when he spoke about penitence, judgment, souls, and the like. If I didn’t clarify these things while I was in the Holy Land, when would I? Not that religion couldn’t be found in New England, where the Pilgrims had first landed on Plymouth Rock, but in the circles that I traveled in, no one spoke about it very much. Here in a forest, thousands of miles away, I could afford to ask questions that I would never have dared to ask back home.
After everyone left, Saba Yosef walked to his desk and began to remove his tallit and tefillin.
“Boker tov,” he said to me in Hebrew. “Good morning. Since you are not eating, I won’t eat anything just now. In another two hours, I will be leaving with some students to a special place where we will pray for rain. We suffered a terrible drought this winter. Because of our many sins, it has not rained for months, may God forgive us. The Kinneret Sea is two meters low, and children are getting sick from the dryness. This summer, if rain doesn’t fall now, many crops will simply not make it until harvest. Our rainy season is normally over by now, so we don’t normally pray for rain at this time of year. But because of the situation, we have no choice, and God in His infinite mercy will answer our prayers.”
“Can I come along?” I asked hopefully.
“It will all be in Hebrew, so I don’t think you will find it very interesting,” Carefully, he wrapped the straps of the tefillin around their box containers and placed them in an embroidered bag. “Since we won’t be able to continue our conversation till later this evening, after we’ve gone fishing, let’s hear some more of your questions.”
He motioned me to come closer and sit by his desk. “Smell the flowers,” he said. “It gives you a lift when you’re fasting.”
I took of a whiff of the fresh bouquet and indeed felt a high.
“If someone becomes a penitent, what are the religious laws that he has to follow?” I asked.
“A non-Jew, someone who is called a ‘Bnei Noach,’ meaning ‘a child of Noah,’ has seven commandments that he has to keep. They are not to engage in idolatry, not to murder, not to steal, not to engage in sexual immorality, not to blasphemy the Name of God, not to eat the flesh of a living animal, and to set up a court system to enforce these laws. Maimonides states that any person amongst the nations who keeps these seven commandments will merit a share in the World to Come.”
All in all, if that was the whole list, I wasn’t doing so badly. I didn’t worship idols; I had never killed anyone; I didn’t really steal, except for my neighbor’s wife once and a while, and then I always gave her back; I didn’t make a point of eating live animals; and even if I wasn’t the greatest believer in God, I didn’t go around blaspheming Him; and I abided by the laws of the state. The commandment forbidding sexual immorality was the stickler, and that depended, I supposed, on your definition of immorality, which in my book meant that if your partner agreed, you weren’t doing anything wrong.
“There was another great sage some two-thousand years ago called Rabbi Akiva. Maybe you have heard of him. He is buried not far from the Rambam, on a hillside in Tiberias.”
“Hakol l’tova,” I said in Hebrew.
“Very good,” the rabbi commended. “I see that I am not your only teacher. Rabbi Akiva summed up the proper path by saying, ‘Love your fellow as yourself, this is a great principle of the Torah.’ Perhaps you are more familiar with an altered variation which states, ‘Don’t do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you.’”
“That’s what we call the Golden Rule.”
“Many people can quote it, but few really live by it. Rabbi Akiva also said: ‘Everything is given on a pledge, and a net is spread over all the living; the shop is open and the shopkeeper gives credit, and the ledger lies open, and the hand writes, and whoever desires to borrow may come and borrow, but the collectors make regular rounds every day and exact payment from a man, with or without his consent, since they have proof to rely on, and their judgment is a judgment of truth.’”
“Who are the collectors?” I asked.
“Angels. In simple terms, there are good angels who reward people for their good doings, and angels of destruction who collect payment over sins, whether by striking at one’s health, or livelihood, or family, and the like. For instance, God sent an angel to seal your wife’s womb.”
BOOM! I felt like a bomb had exploded under my chair.
‘How do you know about that?” I asked in wonder.
“Another, different kind of angel has shown me,” he said.
“That happened because of me?”
“We learned that the “shopkeeper” records everything in his ledger. Think of it as a computer that works with absolute precision. Everything that occurs to a person in life is measure for measure. You didn’t appreciate the gift that God gave you. You betrayed your wife and searched for your pleasure in wells that belonged to others, so God sealed up yours.”
“That’s not fair!” I protested. “Why should God send an angel to punish my wife if I did something wrong?”
“First, it was you, through your actions, who activated the computer and its programmed response. If you had changed your ways for the better, the decree would have been canceled, but you persisted in your behavior. So don’t blame God. Secondly, a man’s wife is a part of the man himself. As the Bible says, ‘And they shall be one flesh.’ The same is true for children. They are an integral part of their parents, connected by an unbreakable spiritual bond.”
My head was spinning. All along, I had blamed my wife, as if it were her inadequacy that had led to her infertility, when on the big scorecard in Heaven, I was to blame.
“There are other factors, like the reincarnation of souls that can often play a hidden role in the equation, but that’s the general rule.”
“That’s so heavy,” I sighed.
The old sage didn’t respond. The magnitude of his words resounded in the depth of his silence.
“What you’re saying is that a man should strive to do good deeds, not hurt anyone, and that there is reward and punishment in the world, according to our deeds, which comes about with a mathematical precision.”
“Reward and punishment in this world, and in the World to Come - exactly.”
“Then how is it that I know lots of people who aren’t saints, yet they and their families lead perfectly happy and healthy lives?”
“The million dollar question,” the wise sage quipped.
After all, I thought, if what he said was true, what about Hugh Hefner? He was still going strong, and he must have been in his eighties.
“Of course, it isn’t so simple,” Saba Yosef continued, as if sensing my doubts. “First, all of those people may not be as happy and healthy as you think. Everyone has problems, whether with one’s wife and children, or in earning a living, or with health. God is very patient, but sooner or later, the verdict falls. Furthermore, in order to give man free choice, God created a system whereby it sometimes seems that the wicked get off without being punished. Obviously, if a man was struck down by a lightning bolt from Heaven every time he committed a sin, no one would dare transgress against God’s commandments. So God often reserves a man’s punishment for the World to Come. For all of the good things an evil person does while he lives, he is rewarded in this world. However, when he departs from this world, he discovers a great surprise. He hasn’t escaped from retribution at all. The sufferings in the next world are far, far greater than all of the troubles a man can encounter in his brief sojourn here on earth.”
“You mean there really is a hell?”
The old man nodded with such a serious expression that I already began to sweat from the fires.
“Let’s say someone dies and goes up to heaven for judgment,” I ventured, worrying what was in store for me. “Let’s say he’s done 100 good things in life, and 200 things he shouldn’t have done. Can’t he make a deal and say - subtract my good deeds from my bad deeds and give me punishment just on the difference?”
“The World to Come isn’t an Arab market where you can bargain. God doesn’t make deals. He doesn’t want to take away anyone’s good deeds, nor take away the reward they deserve. That person will be told – sorry, but we want to give you your full reward for your 100 good deeds. So first we’ll punish you for your 200 bad deeds, and when your atonement is completed, then we will give you your full reward for the good things that you have done.”
“How can you be certain that there is a World to Come?” I asked, starting to feel very apprehensive about my future.
Before he answered, the old man stood up from his chair.
“Let’s go for a little walk,” he said. “It is good for the circulation.”
I picked up the tape recorder and held it in my hand as I followed him along a path that led from the backyard into the forest. He walked with a surprising light gait, not rushing along, but not dragging his feet as you might have expected from a four-thousand-year-old man.
“There are two Worlds to Come,” Saba Yosef explained on the way. “One is the world of the future, may it come soon, when the awaited Mashiach, or Messiah, shall come, ushering in a new era when all of mankind will come to serve God. You are familiar with the verse of the Prophet Isaiah on the Isaiah Wall outside of the United Nations building in New York? It says: ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.’”
“Everyone has heard of that,” I replied.
“Unfortunately, they left out the preceding verse, explaining just how this ideal future will come about.”
The old man walked up a small incline through the woods, breathing less heavily than I was. Early morning sunlight slanted through treetops, bathing the forest in a celestial light. Suddenly, I started to feel hungry and thirsty as hell. Saba Yosef continued on with his lesson.
“The Prophet declares: ‘And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established on the foremost of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and all the nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come and let us go up unto the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’”
“I was at the Western Wall the other night,” I told him. “It was quite a moving experience, though I still don’t really know why.”
He stopped his ascent at a clearing that looked out over the ancient city of Safed. Far down a tranquil range of mountains, I could make out a snitch of the Sea of Galilee, what he called the Kinneret, far in the distance.
“The other World to Come is the world of souls, what is usually referred to as Heaven, where the soul lives on eternally after its temporary visit on earth. Though it is called the World to Come it exists even now. The physical world we live in tries to fool us, wanting us to think that this is all there is. But there is a spiritual world as well, which is the true lasting world. When a person comes to the Kotel, which is known as the Gateway to Heaven, and encounters the intense Divine energy that always hovers there, his soul awakens from its slumber and remembers its Creator, even if he is unable to express this feeling in words.”
“OK, I can certainly live with that. But has anyone ever been to the world of souls and returned to testify that it’s real?”
“There are such cases recounted in the Talmud,” the rabbi answered. “One returnee describes that things were the exact opposite of this world. All of the important people in this world were at the bottom of the world of souls, and the humble and lowly in this world were at the top. But most of our knowledge comes from Moses who learned the secrets of the universe from God when he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. He transmitted the teachings orally to the Elders, and they passed it along in successive generations to the Sages of that time. Other secrets concerning the World to Come were revealed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai by the Prophet Eliahu, who you call Elijah, during the twelve years he had to hide from the Romans in a cave during their occupation of Israel. His teachings are recorded in the holy Zohar, the ‘Book of Splendor.’ He also is buried close by, in the village of Meron, a short drive from Safed.”
There were certainly a lot of Jews buried in the land of Israel, I thought, lending credence to the girl soldier’s assertion that Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people and not of the Arabs.
“I am sure you have heard about out-of-body experiences,” the old man said, “About people who have come back to life after being clinically dead, where they describe meeting up with deceased parents and loves ones.”
“I never took those fairy tales seriously. They always sounded like the hallucinations of mentally imbalanced people.”
“That may be true in some cases,” the old sage admitted. “The point is that a World to Come exists where the soul of a person who has shown himself to be worthy in this world lives on forever.”
As if the matter had been settled, the old man set off back down the trail. It was the “person who is worthy” part that troubled me, and which I wanted to clear up next. But that would have to wait until our next conversation. Going downhill, Saba Yosef walked too fast for me to keep up with him and record his conversation. But if the “Heavenly decree” against me was going to be repealed, I sensed that it would only be achieved with his help, so I was determined not to let him get away from me until I could stand before God on my own – if there really was a God, that is.
Order now while there is still a supply!