Parashat Vayera: Judaism and the afterlife

The midrash is likely highlighting the Jewish capacity to not just inhabit two worlds, but unify them.

MOST WORLD cultures and religions acknowledge the afterlife. (photo credit: Danist Soh/Unsplash)
MOST WORLD cultures and religions acknowledge the afterlife.
(photo credit: Danist Soh/Unsplash)

Sarah sternly warns her husband, Abraham, about a seething rivalry engulfing his two sons. Ishmael’s dangerous influence on Isaac is becoming toxic.

Though Abraham is reluctant to abandon his older son, he accedes to Sarah’s wish and dispatches Ishmael to the desert.

Endorsing this decision, God assures Abraham that Isaac will serve as his successor: “ki b’Yitzhak yikare lecha zara” (Isaac will succeed you). When mentioning Isaac as the true heir, God attaches the letter ‘bet’ to the beginning of his name – “b’Yitzhak.”

Noticing this grammatical anomaly, the Midrash claims that this extra letter “bet” contains the reason for Isaac’s selection. The letter “bet,” as the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet, symbolizes the two worlds that Isaac and his descendants inhabit. As the Jewish people bestrides both this world and the afterlife, it, and not the descendants of Ishmael, is selected to continue Abraham’s legacy. By inserting an extra letter “bet,” the Torah communicates the reason for Jewish selection.

This straightforward reading – that Isaac alone acknowledges the afterlife – is historically and culturally inaccurate. Are Jews unique in embracing a second world to follow this one? Most world cultures and religions acknowledge the afterlife or that second world. Specifically, the Islamic culture of Ishmael acknowledges “akhirah” or the “other” world as a primary element of faith. It is intellectually dishonest to portray Judaism as the only religion that acknowledges the next world. It is inaccurate to explain Jewish selection based on our exclusive belief in the afterlife.

Heaven and Hell (credit: NEEDPIX.COM)Heaven and Hell (credit: NEEDPIX.COM)

More likely, the Midrash is highlighting the Jewish capacity not just to inhabit two worlds but to unify them.

Much of the modern world has become so trapped in a concrete reality that it has completely abdicated any sense of a future world. Living in the modern city, human imagination has become shackled to a cold and barren empirical landscape. Spirit has vanished and vision has receded. Our crippled imaginations often struggle to imagine an afterlife that can’t be detected by the rational mind.

The other half of humanity is so enchanted by the promises of a different world that it secedes – even partially – from the affairs and challenges of this world. Religions that are pivoted upon the experience of “nirvana” – literally being “blown out” or “extinguished” – look to escape the challenges and commotion of this buzzy world. They desperately yearn for tomorrow at the expense of today.

Unlike these two extremes, Judaism attempts to fuse two spheres into one experience. The two worlds aren’t severed from each other; the next world isn’t a “reward” as much as a result. We cultivate spiritual and religious identity in this world, despite facing formidable impediments to spiritual growth. As a result, when we depart this planet, we enter a world without spiritual inhibitions, primed to continue our spiritual journey without the hindrances of this world.

For a Jew, the next world doesn’t promise endless pleasure or limitless financial abilities. Islamic descriptions of sensual pleasures in the next world are completely discrepant with a “unified” view of the two worlds. The very notion that endless physical pleasure will be rewarded to those who lived virtuous lives, sounds hypocritical and, essentially, separates the two worlds into unrelated realities. Judaism fuses, while Islam fractures, the two worlds.

Judaism rejects this fracture but instead merges the two into one band. As Maimonides asserts, the next world enables wise and just people to sit endlessly in the presence of God, luxuriant in the spiritual glow of God. We earn that privilege in the “next life” by constructing a spiritual interface between us and God during our “first life.” As the Scottish 18th-century writer Henry Drummond commented, “To get to Heaven, we have to take it there with us.”

A Jew straddles two realms, and for this reason we are selected and Ishmael is discarded. Not because we alone envision the next world, but because we alone are able to integrate the two experiences into one. Jewish identity is defined by the letter “bet.”

BEYOND THE fracturing caused by viewing the next life as a carousel of pleasure, Islamic fundamentalism further splinters the two worlds by endorsing religious terrorism. The doctrine of “shahid”-ism has, at least for fundamentalist Islam, produced a warped culture that celebrates death and depicts God as angry and vengeful.

Portraying God as delighting in the suffering and murder of innocents is a gross perversion of the image of a loving and compassionate God who is desirous of human welfare. Islamic fundamentalism is a theological crime and not just a moral one. It vandalizes the face of God in this world, and it distorts the notion of unity between the two worlds.

For a “shahid” (martyr), murdering innocents secures entry into the next world. It is repulsive to claim that crime in this world can punch your ticket of entry into the next world. This sickening belief assumes disparity and disunity between the two worlds. It is a scar upon religious faith. If our two worlds are united, it is inconceivable that a terrible crime in our realm should serve as an entry permit for the next world. This bankrupt idea presumes a structural disconnect between our two worlds and dismembers the belief that our two worlds are united.

Islamic fundamentalism is the antithesis of the letter “bet” and of the Jewish doctrine of the “confederation” of two worlds.

We are chosen to represent God in this world and to further assert the integration of the two realms that we inhabit.

The afterlife doesn’t offer carnal pleasure but endless spiritual encounter – an opportunity we get to preview in this realm.

Additionally, the notion that a crime in this realm can warrant entry into the next is morally abhorrent and severely partitions the two worlds we seek to unite.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.