Honoring God through our actions

Rabbi Brad Horwitz

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

A Jewish folktale tells of  a man visiting hell, being amazed to find its inhabitants all seated at long tables, with fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware, and a spread of delicious looking food and delicacies. As he looked more closely, he noticed that the people seated at these tables were depressed and despondent. They were all wailing and not able to eat. This was because they could not bend their elbows and every time they tried to feed themselves they raised their hands in the air in the vain hopes that morsels of food would somehow drop into their mouths.

The same man then went to heaven, where the scene seemed identical — people sitting at long tables, fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware and a spread of fine food and delicacies. However, as he looked more closely in heaven people were happy and cheerful. Even though they too could not bend their elbows, each person turned and extended his hand to feed his neighbor. According to this Jewish tale, the difference between ending up in hell or heaven is about how we act in this life. Do we only focus on our own needs, or do we help those around us and in our community?  


The concept of heaven and hell are not usually identified as Jewish, but as this and many other stories and teachings show, it is not foreign at all to Jewish tradition.  In this particular story, we learn that our actions while alive may indeed have consequences in the world to come. When we help others and think of our community, it has positive consequences not only for our community, but for us as well.

A similar idea is found in this week’s Torah portion, Emor.  God instructs the priests that they should be holy to God by sanctifying God’s name.  Likewise, they should not profane God’s name.  These verses have often come to be interpreted to mean that all Jews are obligated to behave in a way that reflects well on God and the Jewish people.  In doing so, they are participating in the idea of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name.  When we act in a way that brings dishonor to God and the Jewish people we are profaning God’s name, chilul Hashem.

Just like the story about heaven and hell, the parashah teaches us that our actions have ramifications beyond our own lives and our actions impact the community in which we live.  My hope and prayer on this Shabbat is that we all act in holy ways and do our part to help others through acts of loving kindness and good deeds. This will strengthen our community, help honor God’s name, and if we are lucky, might even earn us a ticket to heaven once that day comes.  Shabbat Shalom.