Making This World A Good Place

Traditional Jewish texts offer many teachings concerning the afterlife, olam haba. In a text found in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ya’akov teaches that this world is a prozdor, a foyer for the world to come. Hatken atzmicha biprozdor, “prepare yourself in the foyer so that you can enter the great hall.” 

         Clearly, he is elevating olam haba, over this world. But, Pirke Avot follows this statement of Rabbi Ya’akov with another of his teachings: Yafeh Sha’ah achat bitshuva u’maasim tovim b’olam hazeh mikol hayey olam haba. One hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world is yafeh, nice and more beautiful than the entirety of existence in the world to come. 

         Although the sentence that follows this teaching seems to re-establish the superiority of the afterlife, Rabbi Ya’akov’s teaching about the beauty of teshuva in this world deserves our consideration.

         There is an obvious tension here.  But, it can be resolved. According to Rabbi Ya’akov, the reward offered in the “world to come” is the goal we should aim for but the beautiful reality of a life well lived on this earth is of great value and holds potentially greater meaning. 

         There are many ways to find meaning in the section of the Torah we are beginning to read today: five parshiyot dedicated to the details of the building of the Tabernacle. The details of the building project are interrupted only in Parashat Ki Tissa by the story of the Golden Calf and Moses’ breaking of the tablets and the subsequent renewing of the covenant. 

         Many of the commentators throughout the tradition said that we these two stories took place in a different chronological order. The idea is that the building of the Tabernacle was not interrupted by the incident of the golden calf but, in fact, followed it. Viewed this way, the Mishkan was, in essence, a response to the building of the calf.          God recognized the creation of the calf as demonstrating the people’s need to have a visible focus of their worship. Thus, the tabernacle provides that focus and is evidence that God is still present in the community even when Moses can’t be seen and God remains invisible. This would obviate the need the people might feel for future idols.

         In addition to this idea, for many of our teachers, the Tabernacle was also intended to serve as a miniature replica of the divinely created universe. With its symmetry, its beauty and its sanctity, the Mishkan was designed to be a perfect building: an appropriate human made place for the Shechinah, the presence of God to dwell while on earth. It also would serve as a proof that human beings could strive for that perfection, that symmetry and beauty in our world and by extension in our personal lives. 

But, building such a perfect building could only be accomplished using chochma, practical human wisdom, gained from experience and most importantly with the work done as a communal effort, built with the contributions of all of those who had, in the words of parashat Terumah, a willing, giving heart. It was supervised, not by God, not by Moses, but by Betzalel, a “regular” member of the community. This was a communal effort that elevated the people. Thus, the building of the Tabernacle was, in fact, an effort of teshuva, repentance for the Golden Calf linking the individual’s self-improvement to joint efforts in attempting to build a better world.

         I have been thinking quite a bit about teshuva lately and not only because of the dramatically unsatisfactory teshuva example set by the Houston Astros. We’ll see, if necessary, how the Red Sox decide to do teshuva- that’s for another sermon but I hope they set a better example.

My thoughts about teshuva are inspired by, of all things, a television show. That may not come as a tremendous surprise to those of you who have listened to me over the years. But this time, the TV series in question not from the I Love Lucy era but rather one that just ended its four-year run on NBC a few weeks ago.

         The show is entitled The Good Place and if you haven’t seen it, you really should. If you have seen it, I strongly urge you to watch it again. I’m watching it now for the second time and I’m seeing things I missed the first time. And, if you started to watch it and gave up, as I did at one point, consider this an incentive to keep watching it to the end as a good friend advised me to do.

         The series’ story revolves around four individuals who die and suddenly find themselves in what they are told is “The Good Place”: a place of pastel colors, fulfilled wishes and all the frozen yogurt one could eat. But, very early in the series, we learn that two of the four have mistakenly arrived in The Good Place due to a clerical error. They should have been sent, in fact, to “the bad place” and these two try desperately to prove that they are worthy to stay in the good place. 

But, we learn very quickly that this is not the entire story. In fact, the four are not in the good place after all. Rather, they are in a specially constructed neighborhood of “the bad place” where in place of physical torture, they are being tortured emotionally by having to spend their time in close proximity with other people who get on their nerves constantly because of their differences. This is clearly a reference to Sartre’s: “Hell is Other People.” But that is not the only philosophical reference in the series. As one of the four deceased individuals is a professor of moral philosophy who constantly teaches from Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard and many others, the series gives us all of us a survey of philosophy along the way.

         The show is utterly charming, extraordinarily creative, very funny in parts and very insightful. 

         I won’t give you a “spoiler” but suffice it to say that, in the end, the message of the series is the same lesson as the second of Rabbi Yehuda’s statements with which I opened this morning. The lesson is that whatever lies beyond this world is not as good as what human beings can experience when we continue to work on perfecting our lives to the extent possible and that can only happen in community with others. The principle lesson learned by these four and most significantly by the bad place “architect” who placed them in this experimental neighborhood in the first place is that we can be a support to each other; we can help each other grow; and we can make this world a “good place”. This teaching is at the heart of so many approaches to Jewish philosophy: repairing our lives by repairing the world and vice versa. 

         While the show reflects religious teachings from many spiritual traditions, I was able to spot many allusions to Jewish tradition: from the line in U’nateneh Tokef which talks about God “counting our acts” to several references to the teaching Mitoch She Lo Lishma Ba Lishma; Actions done at first without the proper sincerity can lead to actions done for the right reasons. People can in fact teach themselves to be better people. 

         There were many other allusions to Jewish tradition as well but none as critical as the statement of the demon from the bad place who has done teshuva after being inspired by the changing of the human beings he had intended to torture. He says: “What matters is not whether people are good or bad but what matters is that they are trying to be better today than yesterday.” A simple statement, but what could be a better definition of teshuva?

At the end of the series, we are shown that a place of active teshuva, growth and improvement is really the “best place.” And, the entire effort of the transformation in the series emphasizes the message that giving of ourselves with a willing heart can help to build not only a beautiful building but also a beautiful life and a more perfect world. 

         If you haven’t done so, I hope you’ll watch this series. I’d suggest if you have teenagers at home, watch with them. But, whether you take my advice or not, as we read through the story of the building of the Mishkan over the next few weeks, consider how you can join others to best construct a world of true beauty, working together to turn this world into the “Good Place” that God intended it to be. 

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