September 23, 2018

A Life of Torah Study is Rewarded with an Afterlife of Torah Study

“What happens in heaven? The question has caught the attention of everyone from ancient theologians to modern New Yorker cartoonists. If it continues to fascinate, that is because it touches on other timeless questions. What is perfection? What are the secrets of the universe? What explains who we are and why we are here?

In the Bible, the familiar image of heaven is the divine throne, hinted at in the scenes of Moses’ colloquies with God (especially Exodus 24), referred to explicitly in Psalms (45:7, 47:9), and adumbrated in Ezekiel’s ecstatic description of the angels and heavenly creatures singing God’s praises amid chariots, lightning, and fire. The Christian book of Revelation contains some twenty chapters drawing on these themes.

The rabbis of the Talmud also frequently describe heaven through the image of God’s throne, an emblem of His sovereignty over all created things. But, in one particular text, the Talmud presents a picture of heaven quite unlike anything in the Bible, an image that is indeed unthinkable, if not blasphemous, outside of its uniquely rabbinic context. It opens as follows (Bava Metzia 86a):

They were arguing in the Academy of Heaven.

Sit with these words for a moment. First, focus on the noun “academy.” In this talmudic passage, heaven is not a place of angels, halos, lyres, pearly gates, or fluffy clouds, or of chariots, smoke, lightning, or thunder. The essence of heaven is an academy—a yeshiva—a place of Torah study.”

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