Saturday, September 1, 2007

The World to Come

One of the most powerful aspects of Judaism (to me) is that it is focused almost wholly on the here and now and not so much on the afterlife.

When I first began my exploration of Judaism, this was one of the things I clung to the most, because I had spent my entire life distraught and frustrated with the idea that every (Christian) person around me was living their lives purely to get into heaven. (This isn't a generalization, this is what I experienced. It's like the man who built a colony for Catholics in Florida -- he said himself he wants a place inside those pearly gates.) The goal was always heaven. All good deeds and observance and efforts and the meaning of life and everything was for eternal life. It wasn't about doing good here, that was merely a byproduct. The world to come, as it were, was the goal. It seemed selfish and unfocused.

So as I read Dara Horn's "The World to Come" ... I had this passion, these ideas in my mind. It is one of the things about Judaism that I so cling to. The idea that it's nearly impossible to concieve of the world to come, so that living here and now is the most important thing, is what saved me when I was a child and spent weeks crying myself to sleep over the idea of death. And when I discovered this tenet in Judaism, I became at home. So as I concluded the book, I felt enlightened, lucky and excited.

Let me begin by saying I have no conception of the afterlife. That is what keeps me sane most days. It is what keeps me curious and thriving. It's also what excites me when I read books like this.

"TWTC" is a book fiction based on a lot of fact. It was inspired by a bounty of things, with the soul of the story coming from an event in 2001 when a Marc Chagall painting was stolen after a singles mixer at a Jewish museum in New York (the painting was found later in a Kansas mailroom!). This is what the story begins with, and from there the details of Yiddish writers, Chagall's life, and the story weaves through many generations of a certain family and involves a certain Chagall painting (the one that was stolen). The book is an absolute dreamscape. The entire thing is ethereal, with moments of earth-bound dialog.

The reason I write so heavily about the idea of the afterlife (the "world to come") and this book is because it's given me a new hope of what it all means. I don't want to spoil anything, I really don't. I encourage everyone to read this book. Why? Because the world to come in this book isn't what we think of as the world to come. In this life, the world to come is that which comes after now -- resurrection of the dead or heaven or what have you. In the book, the world to come is life itself.
A note: There is a classic Jewish tradition (and one of my favorite) that before we are born, angels teach us everything -- Torah, the world's secrets, etc. -- and before we are birthed, the angel taps us above the lip (where that little indent is), and we forget everything we've been taught. Why? Because we must spend our lives relearning all the great knowledge and strive to be whole again.
Here's the thing: In the book, when a person dies, he or she spends their afterlife preparing the unborn souls for birth. Teaching them all the secrets and knowledge and things about their genealogy and family tree. But the way that they are ingested are unlike anything you would expect (you'll have to read the book to find out). The world that the newborn souls enter, then, is the world to come ... ! This is a reversal of the idea of the world to come. It reverses common thought regarding "the world to come." It makes more meaningful the idea of the present! It is the essence of everything!

This idea of the afterlife, to me, is hopeful and contains the understanding that I would most fathom. After all -- Torah says nothing of the afterlife: what to expect, what it will be, when it will be. The Jewish tradition of the unborn soul is beautiful, and paired with this idea of the world to come being THIS physical life is equally so.

I encourage anyone to read this book ... it's a beautiful dreamscape of hope and conviction. It's about the self, about today, about time. It's going to hit my list of top books. I have some more to say in relation to the book's ideas versus some things in Abraham Joshua Heschel's "The Sabbath" ... regarding angels and such. I'll write more on that later, though.