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If We are Good, Why is There Punishment in the Next World?
By Ace Ratzon
A colleague of mine said to me, "I am so worried. I heard that before we can come into heaven, we must be punished. If we live proper lives down here, plus Yom Kippur forgives all of our sins, then why must we be punished before entering Heaven?"
I was a bit surprised at his question. My friend is a fine man, good natured and would never harm anyone, yet he was truly worried by what he had heard. Is it true what he heard? Secondly, if it is true, why is it?
The Rabbis in the Talmud report that when a righteous man dies, it is like taking a hair out of a glass of liquid, but when the wicked die, it is like wool which is caught in a thorny bush. The simple meaning of this statement is that the soul of the righteous are not connected with physicality of this world therefore when they die, their souls separate from their body with relative ease. But when the wicked die, since their souls are so connected to the physical pleasures in this world, it is difficult to separate their souls from their bodies. Because of this, the process of separation is likened to a difficult process of pulling wool out of a thorny bramble bush.
Perhaps that describes a righteous man and an evil man, but what about the rest of us who are somewhere in between? If we really do not perform evil acts, why should we receive a punishment?
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To understand this, and more, we must realize that we normally use the word punishment to describe a deterrent action. We punish criminals who stole by placing them in jails for years to teach them a lesson. We do not consider that returning the money that a thief stole as punishment, but rather as righting a wrong or restitution. We see that there are two aspects towards crime, one righting the wrong, and two, prevention which is really punishment.
Now a person who lives a proper live in the eyes of heaven obviously will not do any wrong to anyone that would cause him to be punished. Rather something else is being expressed in the statement of the rabbis, as we shall proceed to explain with a little story.
A family and their small boy were invited to a wedding. The family was very excited, they explained to the boy that the wedding would be a beautiful affair, there would be a live band with music, dancing, and delicious food. The parents dressed the boy in clean clothes and told him to wait, soon they too would be ready to go.
The boy became bored while waiting and wandered out from the house and found a mud puddle to play in. Soon he and his nice clothing were covered with mud. When the parents found the boy, they were horrified, but quickly they rushed to boy to the bathtub and proceeded to scrub the protesting boy. He cried at the treatment that he was getting.
The parents tried to explain to the young child that he could not go to the wedding dirty. He had to be cleaned up, the mud taken off and his dirty clothes replaced with clean clothes. The boy cried as he was scrubbed. He felt that this was a punishment and that his parents were unfair; he did not mind going to the wedding dirty, why should they?
The boy in our story represents the average person in this world. He is given in some degree to enjoyment from the material and physical pleasures in this world. Although he has done no evil to anyone, he really does not deserve to be punished. Yet he is not ready for entrance into the next world. The pleasure in the next world is on a different level than the enjoyment of food and drink, etc, it is a higher, loftier pleasure than the mundane pleasures in this world.
In order that a person who is connected with the pleasures of this world may be given the pleasures of the spiritual world that awaits him, he must be divested of his longing for those worldly delights. This is a painful process since he is connected in some degree to the physical pleasures in this world. It is like some one who begins a diet and is in pain for he still longs for the tasty chocolate treats he was wont to consume.
From one vantage, it appears as a punishment, but that is only from the side that it is painful to leave one's physical attachments and pleasures behind, but from the aspect that it is a required cleansing action that permits the person entrance into the world of divine delight, it is merely a process of cleaning, but not punishment.
Depending on the person's attachment to the worldly delights that he has enjoyed and longs for here, so is his pain. That is what is meant by the statement in the Talmud, that the departure of the soul of the righteous is like drawing a hair from a liquid, it comes out easily because it is not attached with a great attachment in this world. But those for those people who are not considered righteous, the departure of their souls are likened to wool which is caught in a thorny bramble bush; it is difficult and painful for them the transition to the next world. Each person according to his attachment to the physicality of this world.
May we all live with our eyes in our heads and realize, that our life here is only temporary and that like every mortal we will soon leave this world. If we become attached to the pleasures of this world, our departure will be exceedingly painful, but if we look forward to the time we are to enter into the spiritual world, our leaving this world will not be painful.
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from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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