Heaven may be much closer than we think, says Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue in this piece for The Times.
Heaven may be much closer than we think. For most of us, life is frenetically busy, taken up with all the tasks of the immediate present, but every now and then, like the Psalmist of old, we lift our gaze to the hills and wonder what awaits us when our stay on this world ends.
Even more importantly, we ask, if there is a Heaven, what should we be doing now to guarantee a place there? It may not dominate our thinking, but when it arises, the question mark can weigh heavily on our minds.
According to the Talmud, compiled in the 5th century, Rabbi Baruka was standing in a market place when Elijah appeared to him. He asked the prophet if anyone there was destined for Heaven, and when the latter pointed to two men, he rushed over to them to find out what they did that made them so deserving.
They replied: “We are merry-makers. When we see a person who is downcast, we cheer him up. When we see two people quarrelling with one another, we make peace between them.”
Another tale, from the Middle Ages, envisages us standing outside the Gates of Heaven, but points out that, perhaps contrary to expectation, the questions we will face at the entry point will not be, “How many prayers did you say each day?” or “How many candles did you light?” Instead they will be, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” and “Did you keep faith with those at work who trusted you?”
In more modern times a Hasidic story has it that when we are queueing up at that same place, we will not be asked, “Were you another Moses?” or “Were you an exceptional human being?” but we will be asked, “Were you yourself?”
Taken together, they point to a path that is deceptively simple. None of them requires great moments of self-sacrifice, nor a lifetime of denial. They are also curiously irreligious: they do not insist on devotion to ritual observances, nor even any evidence of belief.
What the first two suggest is caring about others and the way we conduct our relationships. However, the examples take this beyond the theoretical love-your-neighbour- as-yourself level.
One of them urges us to actively intervene when we see difficult personal situations, whereas it is so easy to ignore those who are alone, or tell ourselves that those at loggerheads will sort themselves out. A more heavenly response is to put in the time to set matters right, and, even more alarming, to risk the consequences of either hostile rejection or long-term involvement that this may entail.
The business example extends this from the personal sphere to the economic and situations where we might lessen our profit margins. However, ethical behaviour is paramount there too, and if a person cannot look at themselves in the mirror at night without flinching, how can they possibly face their Maker?
But the third passage is the most arresting. It tells us not to feel we have failed unless we achieve greatness, but gives us the much more attainable, but still formidable, task of making the most of our potential. Did I do what no one else but me could have done? Was I the best possible version of myself?
It is very noticeable, however, that in all three cases, the story stops at the Heavenly Gates — we are still no wiser as to what happens inside and have to trust that it is worth qualifying for entry.
In a sense, it does not matter what happens next, because that realm is beyond both our knowledge and our control, but what is significant is that the suggested routes to it can greatly enhance our current existence and that of those around us. Questions about the afterlife become less pressing if we can find fulfilment in this life.
Moreover, the path to Heaven lies not just in what we do in our places of worship at weekends, but as much what happens Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm, in the high street, home or workplace; that is real religion and if we can create bits of heaven on earth, then the unknowable future may already have arrived.