|Vol. VII, No. 2
Iyar 5609, May 1849
Future Reward And Punishment.
I read the other day in a New York paper a statement of M. M. Noah., Esq., of his views of a future state of life, where he denies the existence of the devil, hell, and brimstone, together with all popular absurdities of this kind. I have done the same in the Occident of the year 5608. Now, according to the holy word, “Ye shall be pure before God and Israel,” I wish to show the people that this idea did not originate with us, but that it has been advanced by our most eminent and most rational theologians. Maimonides (Rambam) and Mendelssohn comment on the biblical expression הכרת תכרת “He shall be entirely cut off,” (which the Talmud explains הכרת בעולם הזה תכרת בעולם הבא The first, hickareth, signifies to be cut off in this world, and the second, thichareth, signifies, to be cut off in the world to come), that this expression can hardly be understood literally as a punishment in the future state of life as the Talmud supposes it; for, of what, they ask, shall the soul be cut off? where is the punishment in this being cut off? The Talmudists expressed their traditional view about future happiness in the following parabolic words, perhaps well known to Israelites. “The everlasting day when all the righteous (both Jews and gentiles) will sit together with their crowns on their heads, and enjoying the lustre of God’s divine presence.” The above-mentioned eminent theologians remark on this passage, that there are three different enjoyments, which are purely spiritual. The first of these is, the company of congenial spirits. When men, of an equal high degree of mental faculties, of education and learning, of noble sentiments and inclinations accompany each other, converse, exchange their views and ideas, they forget all carnal cares and pleasures, and delight merely in the spirit although this spiritual enjoyment is limited by our being blood <<87>>and flesh. If our spirit will be disembodied, the bounds having fallen away, this spiritual enjoyment must be enlarged to an immeasurable extent and be much more perfect and gratifying. This enjoyment in the life beyond the grave is expressed in the above quoted שכל צדיקים יושבים “when all the pious will find the association of congenial spirits, rejoicing in and through each other, and each one will find as much delight as he, whilst in this world, has enabled himself to enjoy so far as he is prepared by his earthly pilgrimage to rejoice in the spirit.” The opposite of this enjoyment of the spirit, is the not being allowed or fit to associate with other spirits, which is a severe punishment, a terrible condition, and which is fully expressed in הכרת תכרת “to be cut off entirely.”
The second spiritual enjoyment is the remembrance of the soul of the noble deeds which a man himself has done; of the sacrifices, which he brought in the temple of virtue and godliness; of the dangers with which he was threatened by vice and sinfulness, which he valiantly conquered, and happily overcame. There exists no nobler feeling, producing more happiness in the mind, producing more self-respect, more self-content, than this remembrance. If our memory be not weakened by the limited machinery of our brain, we may constantly rejoice in this remembrance; and, on the other side, the criminal would constantly punish himself by it, which would perpetually produce in him repentance, shame, remorse, self-contempt, and the unhappy wish to transform his deeds into nothing, which is evidently impossible, as the past cannot be undone. But the machinery of our brain is so formed, that new subjects impressed upon the mind cover over almost entirely what has preceded them; our memory is imperfect, and reflects a mere shadow of the things past. If now the soul is relieved from the body, our memory finds no obstacle any more in the brain; and when thus free, all the deeds, feelings, thoughts, that employed it, revive anew and forcibly, and what was formerly mere shadow, becomes now a living object in the soul. It is therefore evident that our remembrance is our best reward and severest punishment, not only here but also in a future state of life. This very idea is expressed in the Talmud in words “When all the righteous sit together, and their crowns on their heads.” Not to have this crown on his head is secondly <<88>> understood in “to be entirely cut off,” to sit alone in shame, overwhelmed with self-contempt, because, as the Bible expresses it, עונה בה “its sin is on it.”
A third spiritual enjoyment is to behold perfection and to know truth. We stand as rooted to the ground before the picture of a great artist, and forget everything around us, simply because it is a perfect thing; we read with pleasure Schiller’s “Marquis of Posa,” and Shakespeare’s “Henry the Fourth,” because they are perfect characters; yea, we read with a peculiar sort of delight Richard the Third, although there is nothing in him that can produce joy if we should witness his acts, but taken as a whole, the character gives us a peculiar enjoyment, because it is perfect in its kind.
Man longs exceedingly to know truth; people call it curiosity, but it is a noble faculty of our mind, which leads us to contemplation, invention, discovery, to arts and deuces; it is a praiseworthy desire of our mind to know truth,* and to know truth affords the same enjoyment as to behold a perfect thing, for truth is the perfection of the object in question. As long as our soul is imprisoned in our body, we have no full idea of a real perfection; the imagination of the poet, painter, or sculptor, it is true, feeds on heavenly manna, but the things surrounding us are imperfect in their nature, wherefore our notion of a perfect thing is very imperfect too, and in the same proportion is our delight in beholding a perfect thing (as far as this can be formed by man, or understood by him) not as perfect as it would be, if we had a better perception of it. This spiritual joy swells in every mind, but will surely be enlarged, the greater the number of perfect objects we have seen, thought, or heard of; the inquirer is more pleased when finding a truth than the thoughtless man; the poet feels deeper the perfection of another poet’s pictures, and so also the painter and sculptor, the beauties in works of art, than he that never saw a product of art, and never thought of it. We may deduct from this, that he, who has spent his life in searching for truth, and in beholding perfections, can experience no greater pleasure, no purer joy, than to see the utmost perfection, the everlasting truth; on the other side there exists certainly no sorer pain than to know there exists such a perfection, such a truth, <<89>>and not to be permitted to see or to know it. When our soul is redeemed from the carnal bondage, our notions of, and our capacity to comprehend, perfection and truth, must be enlarged with the other faculties; and this is what the Talmud says: “To enjoy the constant presence of God,” which is the utmost perfection, the everlasting truth, and this is the highest reward we can think of, whilst to be cut off from this divine presence is the severest punishment.