Shelach Lecha: How far to heaven from hell?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relating the legendary Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s twelve-year exile in a cave in northern Israel, a fugitive from murderous designs of the Roman Caesar. There, secluded together with his son Elazar, Rabi Shimon, known by the acronym Rashb’i, redacted what came to be known as the Zohar, foundational work of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). One can gauge the rare spiritual heights scaled by the Rashb’i and his son by the fact that when they emerged following the death of the Caesar the intensity of their gaze caused fires to ignite. Yet their inability to come to terms with the mundane world brought about a bat kol (heavenly voice) to summon them to “return to your cave” as “you have come out only to destroy My world!” Immediately the pair returned to the cave for another year. Mysteriously not a word is said regarding what they did during this additional period. Only from an extraordinary remark of the Rashb’i to his son at the conclusion of the year do we gauge his new state of mind. He said: Even the sentence of the wicked in Gehinom (hell) lasts no more than twelve months!  Immediately the bat kol proclaimed: “Emerge from your cave!”

Question: How is it that the heavenly site of sublime spiritual achievement for twelve years suddenly becomes Hell in the thirteenth?

Let us put the question on hold and turn to this week’s Sidra (in the Diaspora).. Not the opening part which is always discussed. But rather the sequel to the spies’ negative report of their mission to Erets Yisrael and the subsequent mass revolt against Moses’ leadership – “let’s make a captain and let’s return to Egypt”, i.e. let’s get as far away from the “hell” of Erets Yisrael as possible. The sequel is that, following the announcement of their Divinely-imposed punishment of forty years’ wandering in the desert, the people suddenly realize what they have lost. And they are ready to go and fight for the land! “Now we’re ready, we’ll go up to the place where G-D said we should go, we’ve sinned!” (Num. 14:40).

Question: How is it that the hellish land with its fierce giants and weird fruit has suddenly, literally overnight, become a Heaven to which to aspire?

The answer in both cases is the same. Today’s paradise can become tomorrow’s prison – and vice-versa. It all depends on our perspective.

R’ Shimon spent twelve years in a cave defying a hostile tyrant who hated Torah by growing exponentially in Torah. However, the thirteenth year in that same sacred spot was a hell on earth for R’ Shimon – because he was now there as a mark of direct Divine reproof.

The wilderness-generation had been persuaded that by marching into Israel they would be entering their graves. Only when access to the Land is to be taken away from them for ever does Erets Yisrael suddenly become paradise lost.

The distance between Heaven and Hell may be no more and no less than the breadth of our attitude of mind. For someone of the spiritual stature of the Rashb’i, hell is being estranged from G-D. Maybe that is truly what gehinom is. For many a billionaire, hell is knowing there are people wealthier than they while for many a person barely above the breadline heaven is being able to put food on a plate.

There is a wonderful tale told about a Jew who had a dream that he was being shown heaven and hell. First he went down to hell. There he saw an infinitely long table piled high with delicacies served in golden vessels and men and women on both sides of the table with golden spoons in their outstretched arms – but alas their skeletal arms couldn’t bend and they were unable to bring the food to their mouths.  True hell!

Then he was taken up to heaven. There to his astonishment he saw a similar scene replayed …..but not quite the same. In heaven each man and woman was stretching that extra meter to feed the person seated opposite.

I guess this brand of heaven we can each of us create right here on earth!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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