By Leibel Estrin
The stereotypical view of Heaven is a pleasure palace, a reward that is not related to the behavior that caused it. Judaism looks at the Olam HaEmes (the World of Truth) as dwelling place for the soul in which a person is repaid, measure for measure, for one’s activities in this world. The kind of reward and dwelling place that we receive is commensurate with the Torah we learned, the mitzvos we fulfilled, and thought, speech, and deeds of goodness and kindness that we performed in this world.
Needless to say, performing a good life leads to a “good portion” in the World of Truth. On the other hand, a life of selfishness leads to a portion that involves recognizing and repairing the negative results of one’s misdeeds. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental disagreement between the Jewish and non-Jewish views of Gehinnom (literally, “the Valley of Hinnom, considered the Entrance to the Underworld”) in other words, “hell.”
In Judaism, there is no such thing as a permanent dwelling place in purgatory. It is a principle of Judaism that every Jew has a portion in the World of Truth. The only question is whether the individual has earned that portion, whether he or she earned their place by first going through Gehinnom.
Rabbi Yosef Wineburg, OBM, one of the leading teachers in Chabad today, explains the concept as follows:
The purgatory (Gehinnom) where the soul is cleansed of the “stains” of sin, so that it may enter Paradise to enjoy the radiance of G-d’s glory, operates on the principle of “measure for measure,” i.e., punishment in kind. Thus sins of commission caused by the heat of passion and lust are cleansed in a Gehinnom “of fire,” while sins of omission, due to indolence and coolness (i.e., lack of fervor), are cleansed in a Gehinnom “of Snow.”
It should be emphasized that we are not referring to physical fires or physical snow, rather everything is seen within the context of relating to the Reality (i.e., Presence of G-d).
In the case of one whose passions overcame him, he may come “face to face” with his actions in his life and be embarrassed for the evil he did or caused. If his mistake was not due to passion, but indifference or intellectual antipathy, he may find himself “distant” from G-d’s Presence.
No matter what caused the spiritual blemish, one’s stay in Gehinnom is temporary. After the person has been purified, he/she can enter their proper dwelling place in the spiritual world of reward called Gan Eden, (literally) the Garden of Eden, meaning Heaven in the World of Truth.
Like most concepts in Judaism, the process of judgment in the Afterlife is not black or white. It is possible that one’s judgment could be modified or mediated by deeds performed on his or her behalf by the children and friends who remain in this world, or by the deeds of one’s ancestors. In addition, G-d’s mercy is beyond description or understanding, and therefore could play a large part in the person’s obtaining a place in Heaven.
If necessary, the person could even be returned to this world to repair what he did wrong. This is the concept of reincarnation. The Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that every individual must fulfill all 613 mitzvos in thought, speech, and deed. We continue to reincarnate until we have completed this task, thereby perfecting all 613 organs of our body and 613 aspects of our soul. This is in addition to any specific task or goal that G-d may have assigned.
Where do we find a hint of reincarnation in the Bible? In Genesis 2:17, G-d tells Adam, “Of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, you should not eat of it; for in the day that you eat, you should surely die.” The Hebrew phrase, “surely die” is a double expression, mus tamus. If the Torah just wanted to present the punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge, it should have said, tamus, “you shall die.” By using the expression mus tamus, the Torah is telling us something else: “you will die (once) and die again.” In other words, you will die and you will live again in order to rectify the wrong that you did; and then you will die again. According to our sages, the idea of completing a job (either in the positive sense of doing a mitzvah or in the negative sense of rectifying a wrong deed) is one explanation why some people leave this world earlier than others. Someone who passes away (G-d forbid) “before his or her time” descended to this world for a purpose. Once the purpose was fulfilled, the person returned to the higher world to enjoy the reward. Fortunately for us, most sages agree that this process of fulfilling all 613 mitzvos through various reincarnations is nearing its end. In other words, we have gone through reincarnation enough times to be almost finished. The job of perfecting ourselves and the world at large will be completed through Moshiach (the Jewish Messiah).
Yet, why put the soul through all of this in the first place? After all, prior to coming into this world, the soul enjoys a reflection of the Divine Presence. What could be better? Our sages answer by pointing out that the soul’s position in the spiritual realm is only due to the benevolence of G-d. We don’t deserve to be there. We have done nothing to earn the right. The Zohar calls this situation “bread of shame.” By placing the soul into a body, and giving it temptations and the ability to overcome them, G-d enables the soul to reach a much higher level than it could before descending into this world. The position it achieves after its allotted time on Earth is not “bread of shame” but a reward it has earned.
The Zohar (Zohar II, p. 163a) offers a parable: A king desired to test the moral strength of his only son. He had a most charming and clever woman brought before him. Explaining to her the purpose of the test, he ordered her to try her best to seduce the crown-prince. For the test to be valid, the prostitute had to use all her charms and guile, without betraying her mission in the slightest way. Any imperfection on her part would mean disobedience (to the king) and failure of her mission. While the prostitute uses all her seductive powers, she inwardly desires that the crown-prince should not succumb to them. Our sages call the prostitute the yetzer hara, our selfish (evil) inclination. It seeks to undermine one’s relationship with G-d by focusing on one’s selfish desires. It is up to us to decide which we follow.
To summarize, G-d created Man to manifest His Goodness. He furthermore granted man the ability to make the finite world a fit place for the revelation of G-d. Jews accomplish this by following the Torah and performing mitzvos. Non-Jews perform G-d’s will by being and doing good, i.e., following the Seven Universal Laws of Mankind. Everyone is rewarded for their good deeds and, conversely, must correct any negativity, (G-d forbid).
An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”
Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here.
 Wineberg, Rabbi Yosef, Lessons in Tanya, Kehot Publication Society, NY, 1987, p. 130.
 Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the Ari HaKodesh, was a master of Kabbalistic thought.
 Tanya, Kuntres Acharon, Essay 5
 Horowitz, Yeshaya (1565-1630), Shnei Luchot HaBrit, P. Mishpatim
 Zalman, Rabbi Shneur, Tanya, Kehot Publishing Society, 1973, p. 39