Q My cousin said to me that when we pass away, we automatically go to heaven. I have searched the Talmud and cannot seem to find anything like that at all. Would you please tell me where I can find this or any reference to us going to heaven?
Answer: It seems to me your grandfather was referring to a famous Mishnah found in the beginning of the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin which states:
All Israel have a portion in the World to Come (Olam Haba), for its says, “And your people, all of them righteous, Shall possess the land for all time; They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory” (Isa. 60:21).
Jewish wisdom teaches that the existence of an afterlife suggests that there is more to our soulful existence than what we physically see. We have a kinship with a Spiritual Reality that points to the Divine. Such an awareness would not be possible were it not for the belief that we are made in the image of God. Yet, to become aware of this inner reality, the soul must learn to expand the trajectory of her spiritual consciousness. To achieve this purpose, the soul undergoes a journey into this world where it gradually learns how to love and live a spiritual life that takes it beyond the boundaries of ego. Paradoxically, such growth cannot occur in the heavenly realm–but only in the earthly realm–in order to taste and enjoy the possibilities of transcendence.
Is the afterlife reserved only for Jews? Judaism does not make any such claim. Jewish tradition teaches that the just and righteous of all people have a stake in the world of Eternity, but the degree of our soul’s awareness depends upon what she accomplishes in this world, which the Kabbalah calls “Asiah,” “the world of deed.”
Note how the Mishnah purposely cites a verse that utilizes the metaphors of gardening; this usage is not happenstance, for as every gardener knows, growing anything requires a labor of love. Our sojourn in this world can be seen and spiritually understood through the metaphor of gardening.
Gardening requires many things: plowing, planting, fertilizing, watering, weeding, pruning, the careful use of pesticides, placing the garden in a well-lit place and so on. Each measure taken by the gardener helps to create a beautiful and productive garden. The same process can also be said in the spiritual sense.
Changing human nature is an arduous process and habits become like second nature for most of us. Yet, in our effort to achieve spiritual awareness, we need to break the habit so to speak, this process may be compared to plowing. Seeding represents the importance of new beginnings, we must be aware that in starting anything new, we will inevitably encounter a series of changes and change more often than not, seldom comes easy. Before seeding anything, the gardener needs to know what it is s/he wishes to grow.
The practice of virtue in many ways is like seeding.
In the existential sense; the soul needs to carefully consider what she wishes to grow. Each deed affects what we may become, for in the end, “we reap, what we sow.”
Fertilizing is also essential. The use of compost made up of miscellaneous organic materials, e.g., animal manure, sewage sludge, grass turf, straw, and other crop residues, can greatly improve both soil structure, as well as its capacity to nourish soil life, which in turn nourishes plants.
As a spiritual metaphor, our past weaknesses and mistakes can be transformed into positive learning experiences in creating new life. The Sages said long ago, that in the place of the baal teshuva (repentant) not even the perfectly righteous can stand. This is the spiritual significance of making good compost.
Pruning involves removing all the stems, branches, and shrubs that might impede the growth and quality of a plant. As a spiritual metaphor pruning represents the constant effort to remove negative character traits that keep resurfacing in our personalities. Some Hassidic masters point out that the verses of song (pisuke zimra). The Hebrew word for “song,” “zamare” also denotes pruning. This would suggest that song and prayer are important elements when it comes to spiritually “pruning” the soul from negative habits and attitudes.
Let us extend this metaphor one step further. As you know, pest management is also important of gardening. If left unchecked, insects and rodents can cause severe damage to plants. In a spiritual sense, the soul needs to be safeguarded from influences that can damage and harm her growth. Similar analogies can be drawn from the metaphors of watering and sunlight. The point of the gardening metaphor is to show that in order for us to enjoy the bliss and harmony of Heaven, there must be constant effort, exertion and nurturing.
There are no freebies when it comes to Heaven. God grants us the potential to expand our awareness, but whether we develop our potential is all up to us. Where there is exertion, there is pride and it is for this reason the Mishna concludes with the biblical verse “They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory.” By viewing our bodies and souls like a well-tended garden, the Mishnah teaches us that through effort and toil, there is a great reward that awaits us in the next life.