The Purpose of Heaven


Dear Rabbi,

I am curious about the origins of idioms, phases or expressions.  
For example "Ignorance is bliss" is a phrase coined by Thomas Gray in his 1768 "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College". The sentiment was already expressed by Publilius Syrus: In nil sapiendo vita iucundissima est. (In knowing nothing, life is most delightful.)
You may have heard the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It's found in Alexander Pope's poem An Essay on Criticism, composed in 1709. It can be taken to mean an excuse to be lazy with one's mind and be happier.
The expression “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” is attributed to the author Margaret Atwood and is most often used, to justify not giving information to someone to avoid potential damage if it subsequently becomes known that he/she was in possession of the full facts before a particular course was followed.
Regardless of who claims to be the author of these phrases, I would be willing to bet all three took their inspirations from what we read in today’s parshah, Bereishit.
I can also use the comment of “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away in describing what we read. In the First Aliyah at Genesis 1:29 the following is stated:
“And G-d said, "Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food.”
However, when we get to the Second Aliyah, there is a caveat to what was stated earlier at Genesis 2:16-17 when we read the following:

“And the Lord G-d commanded man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat.

But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die."

I’d bet everyone knows the “rest of the story”. The serpent talks Eve into taking from the tree, Eve gets Adam to go along with it, innocence is lost and we die.

The above can be considered an oversimplification of what was written but the “oversimplification” of the story line going “the Lord created the Heavens and Earth in six days and on the seventh day the Almighty rested” if taken literally, has created a whole culture of non believers that doubt the veracity of the account and thus doubt the existence of G-d. I for one do not take it literally because regardless of whatever theory one devises for the creation of this earth, there is the unanswered question of how it all started.

Again, while not taking everything contained in Bereishit literally, there are many questions that go unanswered. First and foremost, where do all of the offspring mentioned in the various aliyahs come from? I get Cain and Abel coming from Adam and Eve. But starting in the Fourth Aliyah, Genesis 4:17,the following is stated:

“And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

What wife does he have and does she have any name? The only female we have read about to this point is Eve and I do not think there was the grossest form of incest committed, so are there any answers to this? From there, we are introduced to a great number of “begots”, which eventually leads to the death of Cain through his great-great-great-great grandson, Lemech, and then we read about Adam again in the Sixth Aliyah at Genesis 4:25 in the following:

“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son, and she named him Seth, for God has given me other seed, instead of Abel, for Cain slew him.

I anticipate that you are going to tell me that the Torah was not written in a precise chronological order, but the way it is presented leaves many questions about what is going on.

I have many other questions as it relates to Bereishit, but I leave you with the following question. Just to show you that I do not sleep during your sermons, at last most of them, I was fascinated about your comment about Heaven. I do not think that you doubt the existence of a “Heaven” because there is conclusive proof of its being created when we read in the First Aliyah at Genesis 1:7-8 the following: 

“And G-d made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so.

And G-d called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day.”

What do you think Heaven was created for?



Dear Mordecai,

You claim that the following quotes are inspired by what we read in today’s parsha, Bereishit. You cite verse 1:29 but then note that the permission apparently granted is in fact circumcised.  

What was circumscribed was access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  

You then address the issue of whether the Torah should be understood literally. I think we have to explore what the literalism actually means before we can reject it.  

You wonder where Cain’s wife came from if all human beings descended from Adam and Eve, and no woman is mentioned as their progeny. This example is meant to strengthen your case that the Torah cannot be read literally. Finally, you mention the birth of Seth, but your point here is to demonstrate that the Torah is “out of order.”  

All told, however, what you really want to discuss is Heaven. You do not doubt that I believe in the existence of “a ‘Heaven’” though one of my comments from an earlier sermon I gave may have suggested that.  

I see here that you may have set a trap for me, however. You don’t understand the Torah literally, but you believe in Heaven. I may not believe in Heaven, and I may understand the Torah literally. What is at stake in all this is no small matter, for as you write, “The story line going ‘the Lord created the Heavens and Earth in six days and on the seventh day the Almighty rested’ if taken literally, has created a whole culture of non believers that doubt the veracity of the account and thus doubt the existence of G-d.” No doubt, this is a grave problem.  

When we deal with Heaven, we are confronted by a common problem for the Jew. We live in a Christian culture. Even the secular parts of our culture often bear a Christian imprint. “Heaven” is very important to Christians. Therefore when we think of Heaven we are often thinking of Heaven with a Christian valence.  

I offer the following. Heaven is not connected to the afterlife for the Jews. Heaven is a part of the living reality that we participate it. Here, your trap appears because one wonders what that can mean? After all, we are not to understand Heaven literally are we? 

Here is where the dichotomy between literal and figurative becomes useless because people take literal to mean true, real, non-fiction, and figurative means fiction, not real, and not really true.  

If I am to believe in Heaven figuratively, what does that really mean? 

Yet living in a scientific age, as we do, I cannot pretend that I don’t know that what is above us – the sky or atmosphere – has physical qualities. It is a knowable realm through the tools of science.  

Fortunately, we can shift the definition of literal. Literalism actually just means “context.” Reading passages in context is reading them literally. Reading them out of context creates opportunities for figurative readings.  

All this is intended as a preface to my answer to the question, “ What do you think Heaven was created for?” 

Heaven is the realm of completion. Earth is the realm of fragmentation. Heaven serves as a template for what can be achieved on earth. The earth, and human beings, are incomplete, but through the covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, we can bring the world closer to completion. This is not called Heaven, however; this is called Messianic Time. Heaven is not a part of history. It is beyond history because it is beyond time. As human beings, however, we live in time, so we can never live in Heaven. Living in Heaven is a Christian idea and is deeply connected to the afterlife.  

This definition and explanation of what Heaven is brings us one step closer to identifying what the purpose of creating Heaven was, which is really what you are asking.  

Heaven exists to remind us that while our lives on earth are fragmented, a realm of wholeness does exist. By partnering with G-d here on earth, we can build earth into a new Heaven. This is what is meant when we speak of Paradise. Paradise is earth that has undergone the transformation of Heaven. Paradise speaks to the timeless quality of this place, but according to Maimonides human beings will always live in time.  

As Genesis makes clear the Heaven and the Earth are the two basic categories of Creation. Although they are separate, they are intertwined. Ultimately, we ask ourselves, Is Heaven real? And the answer is yes. Because Heaven points us in the direction of changing the Earth.