Daf Yomi Chagigah 4
Where is hell?
Is hell somewhere beneath the earth’s surface? There are references to hell being beneath the earth, particularly in the Christian Bible and some even point to the extreme temperatures at the earth’s core as evidence of hell’s location.
But how can it be a physical place? If your soul goes there after you die, then it must be situated in the spiritual realm. So where is it then, up or down?
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, the Torah states, “They could not respond to him for they were confounded by his presence.”
Rabbi Elazar would cry whenever he read the verse, saying: If this was the response to the censure of a mortal, how much more will one be shaken up by the censure of the Holy One, blessed be He!
Did Joseph really censure them for their actions? He did not. But the mere mention of their behaviour made them feel so ashamed that they were speechless. The mental anguish of the shame they felt at that moment was itself a powerful punishment.
Similarly, explains Rabbi Elazar, hell is not a destination in any physical space. Rather, it is the anguish the soul endures in the presence of the Almighty, burdened with all its impurities. Imagine having to face a king’s court in your undergarments. Now imagine your body was scarred with an awful skin disease and everyone could see it. You would be so embarrassed. That was how the brothers felt knowing that they stood in the presence of the viceroy of Egypt and their sins were hanging out for all to see.
When you sin in this world, your soul is stained. Every transgression, even inadvertent, scars the soul with impurity. That’s why we are instructed to bring an offering to the Holy Temple even for inadvertent sins – in order to cleanse our souls. (And of course today, we achieve that cleansing simply through teshuvah – sincere repentance.) But when we fail to cleanse our souls, we arrive at our ‘final destination’ looking pretty dirty. And appearing in heaven with a dirty soul is outright shameful. That is Judaism’s conception of hell – the shame one endures in heaven when your soul bares all.
And it’s not only true of mitzvos; the shame of Torah-neglect is even more pronounced. Imagine the world’s top rocket scientist came to town to give a lecture. Two people are sitting side-by-side in the lecture hall at the university. One of them is the local rocket scientist who is enthralled by his hero’s words and could listen to him for hours on end. The other is illiterate and went because he always wanted to hear what rocket science is about. But he’s bored silly because he does not understand a word.
That’s the feeling many will feel at the World to Come’s Torah lecture. The Almighty will be teaching Torah to a packed house! Sadly, many good people who had a lifetime of good deeds will be bored out of their minds because they did not learn much Torah and now they simply don’t understand what’s going on. Imagine being stuck clueless in that class for an eternity! Hell is not a place; it’s a state of mind.
Now’s the time to clean up our act! Detox your soul! Learn Torah! And your time in the World to Come will be eternally blissful!