Deprived of Life in the Hereafter
Rabbi Melanie Aron
May 3, 2003
Jews rarely talk about heaven and hell and it is pretty unusual for life after death to be mentioned in Jewish sources as a reward or punishment. In general Judaism is focused on this world, and making our lives meaningful by contributing to the betterment of our communities. But in the chapter of Pirke Avot that we read this, the third week of the Omer period, we find a rabbinic teaching that explicitly mentions life in the hereafter.
In Chapter 3 section 15 of Pirke Avot, Rabbi Elazar of Modiin says that there are five things that cause one to be deprived of life in the hereafter. Now one might expect these to be very serious crimes- serial murder for example or genocide, or acts of great heresy, like denying the importance of the Torah. In Mishnah Sanhedrin for example, it states that all Israel has a place in the world to come - along with the righteous of all nations. All Israel - Sanhedrin states except those who deny the essential core of Jewish belief. But here in Pirke Avot, we have a strange combination of items, none of which seems all that important. What is it that unites them and what makes them so important?
Let me read you the text:
Rabbi Elazar of Modiin says:
One who profanes sacred things
Who despises the appointed festivals
Who humiliates a fellow being in public
Who rejects the covenant of Abraham
Who interprets the Torah in a way, which contradicts the Halachah
Even though in possession of Torah knowledge and good deeds
Has no share in the world to come.
The commentaries explain that Rabbi Elazar is concerned about people not paying heed to the spiritual dimension of life. If they treat sacred things as ordinary objects, appropriate things donated to the Temple for their personal use - or more a contemporarily example, a tallit to dust the house, or if they ignore festivals and treat them as regular workdays, they will not experience any of the spiritual possibilities that Judaism provides. Rejecting the covenant of Abraham, circumcision is also a rejection of specialness, the special obligations of the Jewish people, and interpreting the Torah purposely against the interpretative teachings, is denying the specialness of the mesorah, the tradition of Jewish learning. Observing the particularistic Jewish mitzvoth and leaning the tradition so as to see the world through Jewish eyes - there are two key elements of Jewish distinctiveness, the special aspect of being Jewish.
But what about the middle phrase: who humiliates a fellow being in public?
It is interesting that this teaching is found also in the Talmud in Baba Metzi, where an extensive discussion takes place comparing shaming another person with committing murder. Just as when one strikes someone with a sword one draws blood, so too when one shames someone, and they blush, you are also, as it were metaphorically, drawing blood. We are urged to avoid embarrassing another person, even to the extent of putting ourselves in some physical danger.
How does this relate to the other 4 teachings? Perhaps we can find the answer in Rabbi Akivah's teaching, which follows our text in Pirke Avot.
How greatly God must have loved us to create us in the image of God. Yet even greater love did God show us in making our conscious that we are created in the divine image.
When we humiliate another person we are denying that divine image and ignoring the specialness of each individual. Rabbi Elazar of Modin, the place where the Maccabee's rebellion began, urges us to be ever conscious of where holiness can be found, in holy objects and holy days, in observing commandments and in Jewish study and most especially, in respecting the image of God within every person.