This week, a reporter from the Kansas City Star called me not to ask about Israel, the Presidential Election, or anything of immediate local or global relevance. Rather, she asked me about the Jewish perspective on heaven. I, of course, reinforced for her that the Jewish tradition has a deep eschatological foundation and offers a strong belief in olam haba (the world to come). I also assured her that the Sages of the Talmud could not imagine a heaven that was exclusive only to Jews, but rather that it was reserved for the righteous of all nations. Lastly, and most importantly, I let her know that Jews have felt obliged to prioritize the holy work that needs to be done in this world over speculation about the nature of the next world.
Jewish worldly responsibility trumps any necessity to embrace dogmas or beliefs about the nature of an afterlife. Rambam even suggests that it would be harmful to spend much time thinking about that which cannot be known, such as the messianic era and the next world. He urges us to steer away from more radical cataclysmic apocalyptic thinking (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Melakhim 12:2).
However, in my reflections, I also recalled the haftarahs that we read around the holiday of Sukkot dealing with the final apocalyptic end-of-days war of Gog U’Magog. In both the books of Yechezkel (38:18-39:16) and Zacharia (14:1-21), a complex picture is painted. These stories have grasped the human imagination for centuries and penetrated deeply into our religious consciousness, since they represent the destruction of our imperfect world, the ultimate full blown war against evil, and the victory of God and the Jewish people in a battle for truth. Both of these haftarahs describe a future war fought against nations oppressing Israel, in which G-d rises to fight against the enemies of Israel. Rashi argues that both haftarahs describe the same end-of-days war with “every man’s sword against each other” and G-d’s ultimate supernatural intervention and destruction.
Some modern thinkers have suggested that we have experienced these wars already or are in the midst of them. The Vilna Gaon (commentary on Mechilta Exodus 14:20) said that this Gog U’Magog war will only last three hours and will take place on Hoshana Rabba. Another rabbi recently pointed out that the U.S. war in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda began on Hoshana Rabba.
Others claimed that World Wars I and II were the Wars of Gog and Magog preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah, started by the Jewish return to Israel. Previously, Chassidic teachers saw the Jewish struggles with France and Russia as the wars of Gog and Magog.
But must we worry? These wars are of the past, not the future, and these stories of Gog U’Magog have not gained prominence in Jewish theology.
Recently, an alleged Mayan prediction that the world will come to an end in December 2012 has been popularized in the media. Responsible theologians and scientists alike have unanimously repudiated this, along with popular entertainers. As Jay Leno recently joked on the Tonight Show: “According to the Mayans, the world is supposed to end in the year 2012. Are you buying that? When's the last time you even ran into a Mayan?” Or as the band REM once sung: “It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”
Incredibly, many people have given credence to this apocalyptic vision. In an international poll conducted for Reuters in May 2012, fully 10 percent of Americans believed that the world will end by the end of 2012, and 22 percent believe that the world will end during their lifetime. Contrast this with France, where only 6 percent of those polled believe that the world will end in their lifetime. Significantly, the poll revealed a correlation between anxiety over the future and belief in an imminent end of the world.
Contemporary thinkers have echoed the warnings of past rabbis to focus on real contemporary crises rather than imaginary doomsday scenarios. Deepak Chopra has noted that Americans should focus on the changing world, in which nations will have to curtail their indiscriminate use of natural resources, and in which “crude nationalism” and “religious intolerance” were credible threats worthy of attention. He warned against those who focused on the end of the world: “…reactionary forces, fueling an undercurrent of fear, promoting a fantasy of America as a perfect society where privilege is a birthright and the rest of the world exists on a plane almost beneath notice.”
The Mayan doomsday episode will soon be behind us. I would suggest that the wars of Gog and Magog are not in the Tanach and in our haftarahs in order to strike fear into us or to lay out a perfect picture of the end-of-days. Rather, it should tickle our moral imagination around the possibilities of destruction and creation.
This theme of global destruction is not new. We saw that G-d destroyed the world with the flood and Noah rebuilt the world. Later, all of civilization was broken once again and dispersed at the Tower of Babel. After the Shoah, the Jewish people needed to re-create a lost Jewish world. We are asked, now once again, to step out of our known world and imagine a new one. If your world were destroyed, how would you rebuild it? How would you change it?
Today, our American discourse is dominated by the details of how we are going to rebuild, as is demonstrated by the political process. You have about half the country saying we need big strong government and half saying we need small hands-off government, and a lot of bickering in between. But within the debate of HOW we structure our society, have we lost the big picture of WHAT—what is the ultimate world we are trying to construct together. That is much bigger than any individual’s pocketbook, any particular policy, any politician, and even any generation. It is ultimately what we leave in this world. The project of Judaism is designed to constantly push us from self-interest into the big picture of society, global impact, and long-term generational impact. What will the world be like after me?
To do that, we cannot go to the woods and wonder alone. To dream, we must do it together. And we must do it with those who have been excluded from the actualization of past dreams. As poet Toni Morrison said: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” The best dreamers of the future are often those denied the dreams of yesterday.
The stories of apocalypse that we read may tempt us to think about how the world could be destroyed, but our moral challenge is to think about how we will reconstruct the world, how we rebuild after the storms. Destruction stories can divide us in fear. Construction stories can build us in unity.
In the 18th revolutionaries here in America, understood that they were building a new world. In 1948, those building the new Jewish state, understood they were creating a new world. When one holds their newborn child for the first time, they understand that they are holding a new world.
In fact, if we look at Noah after the first destruction of the world, Rashi explains that his name is Noach due to the nechama, the comfort he brought to the world. How did he do that? He invented the plow. To build the world, we just have to start plowing. That is our work, to dream but also just to start plowing and working toward that dream.
“Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was once leaving Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehoshua was walking behind him and saw the Temple in ruins. Rabbi Yehoshua said: ‘Woe unto us for the destruction of the Temple, the place of atonement for the sins of Israel.’ Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said to him: ‘My son, do not worry—we have another form of atonement like it.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Acts of loving kindness.’” That is how we rebuild the world today: turning from a destroyed past and rebuilding the future through gemillut chasadim (random acts of loving kindness).
When we read the stories reminding us of the power of destruction, may we rather dream of a new world, and commit each day to doing random acts of kindness to secure this future world that turns our dreams into realities.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"