Thursday, November 29, 2012

Would You Live in Paradise?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
For thousands of years, people have dreamed of living in the hereafter in a place called Paradise, enjoying a comfortable, easy life. To me that would be the most boring place in the universe. Let me explain.

The idea of “paradise” (an old Persian word that is also found in Hebrew, pardes, meaning “orchard” or “garden”) goes back to the ancient Near Eastern as well as other Mediterranean societies. The Sumerians referred to it as “Dilmun,” the Greeks spoke of “Elysian Fields”; the Hebrew Bible has gan e’den (Garden in/of Eden) and the Arabs mention “Djennet.” According to some ancient Rabbis, in paradise (also referred to as ‘the world to come’) “There is neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of God’s presence” (BT Ber. 17a). The Quran describes Djennet as a place where people enjoy all kinds of delicious food and wines, but also the company of wide eyed-beautifully shaped wives (Sura 54).

In medieval times, Dante (14th cent.) and, his Jewish counterpart, Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, came out with different images, all of them based on speculation and wild imagination.

To me paradise, however conceived, sounds like a dull place, with nothing to look forward, where work has no meaning and, no matter what you do, your future is assured. Is this the kind of life we want?

I prefer to live in a world, here on earth, which, though not perfect, is open to possibilities for personal growth, where work gives meaning and purpose to one’s life, where love creates deeper bonds, where the realization of our human limitations and our eventual death provides an incentive to do something good for others. I go with the Psalmist who declared, “The righteous shall inherit the land, and live here in it forever” (Ps. 37: 29). I personally would skip the “forever” part. After I am gone, the energy I represent will, I assume, become part of the energy of the universe, and my name will endure as long as some people remember it.

The Bible mentions that Adam and Eve lived in gan e’den but were kicked out, because, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, they could now attempt to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God (Gen. 3: 23). Most Christians refer to this story as the “Fall.” Though there were some Jews who did share this belief (see, II Esdras in the Apocrypha), mainline Judaism has viewed this parable, not as a Fall, but as the emergence of conscience, which, for me, is a good thing. I think the biblical story of Paradise is telling us that humans must accept their limitation and mortality, and that with knowledge comes the responsibility of making moral choices.

So, keep dreaming about paradise, if you wish. As for me, I am happy to live in a real world, here on earth, with all of its imperfections, where I can grow, feel, love, learn, and mature. I admit, however, that a good health and a few bucks would make things much easier.

Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 2012

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