Do Jews Believe in Heaven and Hell?
Once, a Jewish student asked me if Jews believe in heaven and hell. After explaining the Jewish view on this subject and emphasizing that we don’t believe in eternal damnation, I asked her why she asked this question.
She was curious because her Christian friends always spoke about heaven and hell, but she never heard about it at home or in Hebrew school.
So why do some religions obsess about life after death while the Jewish bible barely mentions it?
An answer is found in this week’s Torah portion Toldos (Genesis 25:19–28:9), where Yitzchok blesses his sons Yaacov and Esau. Yaacov is blessed with “the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth” (Genesis 27:28), and Esau is blessed with “the richness of the earth and the dew of the heavens” (Genesis 27:39).
The blessings appear identical, except their order is reversed. Both brothers receive spiritual blessings, “the dew of heaven,” and material blessings, “the richness of the earth.” However, by reversing the order, Yitzchok points out that Yaacov’s priority was spirituality and Esau’s priority was material gain.
The Torah makes this distinction when it says, “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents.” (Genesis 25:27).
Our sages also explain that “the dew of heaven” refers to the World to Come, and “the richness of the earth” refers to this world. In the case of Esau, his blessing mentions earth first and then heaven because his descendants will enjoy the pleasures of earth and hope for the World to Come. Yaacov’s descendants are first promised heaven, the World to Come, and secondly given the physical world, not for mere pleasure, but as the means to achieve their spiritual goals.
This is the secret of Jewish spirituality and closeness to God. The Jewish people were instructed to use material objects to fulfill God’s mitzvot (commandments), which are a manifestation of God’s will and wisdom. It is significant that the word mitzvah - מצוה is related to “tzavta - צוותא” which means connection. It is through the physical mitzvot that finite man is able to connect to the infinite God and thereby acquire a portion in the World to Come.
This is why many Jews focus on good deeds and action and don’t talk about heaven and hell. We focus on the means rather than the ends and simultaneously transform the world into a more refined and spiritual dwelling. We also don’t want the “promise of heaven” or fear of “eternal damnation” to taint our spiritual service with an ulterior motive.
May this Shabbos provide opportunities to give thanks for the blessings we receive and opportunities to serve and connect to God sincerely.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
P.S. for a more in-depth description of Judaism's view of heaven and hell please visit https://jewsforjudaism.org/kno...
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