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Monday, 20 April 2015

How to enter Heaven alive

Daf Yomi Kesubos 77

In one of the most unforgettable moments in the Bible, the prophet Elijah cheats death as he is whisked off to Heaven in a chariot of fire.  Looking on incredulously, his disciple Elisha yearns for such an end and vows to emulate his teacher’s righteous ways.

What does going to Heaven alive mean?  Was Elijah the only one in our history to have entered Heaven alive?

A Beraisa taught: If one let blood and immediately engaged in marital relations, he will have feeble children.   If they both let blood and engaged, they will have children with ‘raasan’ disease. 
Rav Papa explains: This only happens if they did not taste anything in between, but if they tasted something in between, there’s no cause for concern.
What are the symptoms of raasan?  One’s eyes tear, his nose runs, he emits saliva from his mouth, and flies swarm around him. Rabbi Yochanan declared, ‘Beware of the flies around those afflicted with raasan!’  Rabbi Zaira would avoid sitting in the same environs as people with raasan.  Rabbi Elazar would not enter a tent of people sick with raasan.  Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs that came from a neighbourhood where raasan was present.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would keep company with people afflicted with raasan and engage in Torah study.  Quoting the verse in Proverbs that describes the Torah as “a beloved deer that charms,” he would say that if Torah charms those who learn, certainly it must protect them! 
When he died, they told the angel of death, ‘Go and fulfill his wishes.’ The angel went and appeared to him. 
He said, ‘Show me my place in Heaven.’
‘Okay,’ replied the angel.
‘Give me your knife,’ said Rabbi Yehoshua, ‘lest you scare me on the way.’  He gave it to him.  When they arrived, the angel lifted the rabbi up to see his place.  But he jumped up and over to the other side.

He went and found Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who was sitting on thirteen golden chairs.
He asked him, ‘Are you the son of Levi?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Did the rainbow appear during your lifetime?’ asked Rabbi Shimon.
‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Yehoshua.
‘If so,’ responded Rabbi Shimon, ‘you are not the son of Levi.’
The truth is, no rainbow appeared during his lifetime, but he did not want to take the credit. 

Just like the prophet Elijah, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had the incredible merit of entering Heaven alive.  Here, the Talmud grants us special insight into who he was and why he was granted such an opportunity.   While all his colleagues shunned those afflicted with the raasan disease, he reached out to the poor souls who were afflicted through no fault of their own.

But let’s take a step back and begin with the cause of the affliction.  In ancient times, it was popular to let blood from time to time.   Thank G-d, we have come a long way: nowadays we appreciate the value of blood, which the Torah calls ‘life’ itself; and the only time we voluntarily release blood is in order to share it with another human being, in order to grant them life.

When a person engages in bloodletting – fulfilling their bodily desires – and then immediately jumps to marital relations, the Beraisa warns us that it is dangerous.   Intimate relations may be the holiest act or the coarsest behaviour.  If all that is on your mind is the desire of the flesh – from bloodletting to relations – that will have negative consequences.   

Nonetheless, Rav Papa informs us that doing a mitzvah as simple as eating in between will resolve the matter.  Why?  Eating connects the physical world with the spiritual.  When you eat, the food is transformed into energy that enables you to serve Heaven.  You have thus elevated the food from the physical realm to the spiritual realm.  And so at that moment, you’ve managed to switch gears from fulfilling the desires of the flesh to living a G-dly existence, and your marital relations will be energized from a pure source.

And yet some people will engage in relations purely serving their physical desires.  Such a union, says the Beraisa, may be disastrous for their children, to the extent that most of the rabbis would stay far away from such people for fear of their negative energy rubbing off.  Not Rabbi Yehoshua.  He insisted on reaching out to them, assured that the Torah would protect him. 

As a result of his outreach, he was granted the opportunity to enter Heaven alive.  What does that mean?  Just like Rav Papa’s example of the mitzvah of eating, your purpose in this world is to fuse the physical with the spiritual.  Some people will get caught in the net of physicality and spend a lifetime in pursuit of the desires of the flesh.   Others will shun the physical world and create a sanctuary, a sacred space, to devote themselves to Torah and avoid the world around them.  The ultimate Jew goes out into the world, draws down spirituality into the mundane and elevates the physical. 

That was Rabbi Yehoshua.  He was not afraid to go out and meet his brothers and sisters who were far removed from spirituality.  Because for him there were no barriers between the physical and spiritual realms.  That’s the meaning of entering Heaven in a body.  When you’ve elevated your body to such an extent that you’ve fused the physical and spiritual worlds, your entire being can enter Heaven.  Just like Elijah, who dedicated his life to going out into the world and attempting to win back the hearts and minds of his wayward brethren, Rabbi Yehoshua was not afraid to face the real world and infuse it with spirituality.

But then he gets to Heaven and who does he meet?  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the rabbi who spent thirteen years secluded in a cave learning Torah.  Because as far as Rabbi Shimon understood, you can’t be a perfect tzadik – righteous person – if you’re allowing yourself to be out there in the world.  ‘There’s no way you could have acted like that and avoided the appearance of the rainbow,’ was what he was effectively telling him.  And while one can afford to be confrontational in the ivory tower (we know that Rabbi Shimon and his son had to spend an additional year in the cave because they couldn’t relate to regular people), outreach rabbis sometimes just need to smile and avoid unnecessary conflict.  And so Rabbi Yehoshua nods his head to the rainbow question without debating the matter.

You too can enter Heaven in a body.  It’s about fusing the physical with the spiritual.  It’s about engaging with our brothers and sisters who weren’t fortunate to have been born into spirituality, through no fault of their own.  When you maintain your spirituality in a mundane, physical world, you imbue your physical body with spirituality, the ultimate being the total spirituality of the physical body.  We will all experience that eventually, with the resurrection of the dead.  But in the meantime, only very few select individuals get there.

G-d placed you into this world to impact the world.  But at the same time, you must never forget that you are a child of the Almighty, you are a spiritual being.  May you merit fusing the physical with the spiritual and entering Heaven in a chariot of fire!