We humans are overly concerned with our existence. In common with all other living creatures, we don’t want to die. Unlike other living organisms, however, we have the ability to think abstractly and temporarily, and therefore know that like it or not we are going to die. This fact, according to psychologists, fills us with fear and terror. To alleviate the dread we find strategies to ensure that we live on in some manner.
For many the strategy of choice is believing in an afterlife that results from good deeds and positive behavior in this life. But there are a few lines in the Talmud that seem to offer an alternate strategy. The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yochanan is quoted as saying that Jacob the patriarch did not die (Taanit, 5b). To which another scholar immediately objects, saying that the Bible itself says that Jacob was prepared for burial and was eulogized. The answer given is, in my view, one of the most powerful in the entire Talmud: since his children are alive, he too is alive.
The word “children” obviously implies the carriers of one’s DNA. Yet, children is also a metaphorical concept. Anything that one creates in this world and that has a lasting impact can be considered one’s next of kin. The Talmudic idea that one lives on through one’s children is powerful. Stanford Professor of Psychotherapy Irvin Yalom calls this the ripple effect. It is impossible to go through life without having an impact, negative or positive, on those around us.
There is a huge difference between this approach to dealing with existential concerns, and an approach that suggests that through some other form of eschatological reality one becomes immortal. In the former, one is forced to value and make the most of every moment of the here and now, to ensure that they have a greater impact on humanity. In the latter approach, conversely, the concern is less about the impact those actions have on the here and now, and more on whether one’s life is lived in accordance with some kind of apriori model, according to which one will be able to qualify for a place in a posthumous paradise.
Clearly, whether an afterlife exists or, as Epicurus maintains, life ceases to exist in its entirety at the point of death, is a matter of belief. It is not something that we have the ability to gather empirical evidence about. Yet, the strategy we use to deal with our existential angst has a huge impact on our behavior while we are alive. It has always puzzled me, for example, how one can encounter people who are simultaneously very religious and very ruthless. Doesn’t religion teach one to be kind to one’s fellow man? To be charitable? It occurs to me that this conundrum has to do with how the individual deals with their existential angst.
One who sees the ability to live on as contingent on getting into a post-life paradise will focus their life on ensuring that they meet the standards necessary to gain entry to their heaven. Thus, the concern is primarily selfish. It’s not about, how I can impact the world around me, but rather, is about how they can score eternal life.
Those, however, who deal with their existential angst as contingent on if the impact they’ve had on the universe is positive and enduring, are much more careful to ensure that all their actions are aligned with leaving a legacy that includes a positive and enduring impact on their fellow human beings. In other words they are concerned with recreating a heaven on earth.
Obviously there isn’t a binary option here where one need either believe that existential angst can be solved exclusively in one way rather than the other. Clearly a combination of the two is also a viable. In fact Judaism seems to accept both approaches. I would posit, however, that the main focus must be on the here and now. Simply stated, a life lived striving for a place in an afterlife may miss opportunities to impact humanity positively while alive in the physical form, resulting in missed opportunities for both the individual and humanity.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life