Life on earth is the only life humans get, according the Hebrew Bible (except the second-century B.C.E. book of Daniel1). The souls of all dead humans, good and bad, go to Sheol, an underground place of oblivion. There is no reward or punishment for human deeds after death.
The reward for virtue in most of the Hebrew Bible is a long and healthy life with male descendants and a good reputation. The punishment for wicked deeds is an early death, the early death of one’s children, or being forgotten.
Do not envy those who do wrong.
For quickly they will dry up like grass;
Like green plants they will wither. (Psalm 37:1-2)
In a little while the wicked one will be no more;
When you look at his place, he will not be there.
But the humble will take possession of the earth
And delight in abundant well-being. (Psalm 37:10-11)
For the wicked will be shattered,
But God supports the virtuous. (Psalm 37:17)
In the Psalms, God is omnipotent and just. If bad things happen to good people, they are temporary setbacks, and only those who have done something wrong suffer sickness and beg God for mercy.
At Yom Kippur services, Jews pray to a God who tempers justice with mercy. Besides begging God to forgive us for our misdeeds, we chant God’s self-description to Moses in the “thirteen attributes”, including “a compassionate and gracious god, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and dependability.”2
Four days after the sun sets on Yom Kippur we begin the week of Sukkot, when the Torah commands us to “rejoice before God, your God, seven days”.3 Rejoicing seems appropriate after the work of atonement is done, the last crops have been harvested, and the grapes have been pressed for new wine. Life is good.
But the Torah reading for Sukkot also says:
In sukkot you must dwell for seven days. All the citizens of Israel must dwell in sukkot, so that your (future) generations will know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
sukkot (סֻכֺּת) = temporary shelters; huts made of branches and mats to provide shade for harvesters in fields and vineyards, for travelers, or for cattle. (The roofs of ritual sukkot must provide more shade than sun, but still let in any rain.)
So we rejoice even though our shelters are temporary, our harvest is temporary, and our lives are temporary. During Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, which begins:
Haveil of havalim, said Kohelet.
Haveil of havalim! Everything is havel. (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 1:2)
haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) = puff of air, vapor; ephemeral, futile, fleeting. (“Vanity” in the King James Bible. Plural: havalim (הֲבָלִים).)
All human achievements and human lives are as temporary as puff of air. Meanwhile the seasons go around forever, like the cycles of the sun, the winds, and the water.
And there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Furthermore Kohelet observes that wisdom and foolishness, virtue and wickedness, make no difference in the fate of human beings. Kohelet does not question God’s omnipotence, and refers to God as judging humans according to their virtue, but concludes that humans cannot change the quality or length of their lives through good deeds or religious observances. God has predetermined everything.
And I said to myself: The virtuous and the wicked God will judge … God sifts them out only to show them they are beasts. Because the fate of the sons of humankind and the fate of beasts are one fate, since this one dies and that one dies. The spirit of the human has no advantage over the beast, since everything is hevel. They all go to one place, they all come from the dust and they all return to the dust. (Ecclesiasters 3:17-20)
Humans die like beasts. But does God grant virtuous humans any of the biblical rewards during their lifetimes—
—by giving them longer lives?
I have seen everything in my days of hevel. There is a virtuous one perishing in his virtue, and there is a wicked one living long in his evil. (Ecclesiastes 7:15)
—by giving them descendants to inherit what they built?
And I hated everything I earned from my toil that I was toiling under the sun, that I would leave it to the human who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? But he will control everything I earned from my toil that I toiled, and that I gained by wisdom under the sun. This, too, is havel. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)
—or by giving them renown in the memories of those who follow?
There is no remembrance of the wise or of the fool. For it is already certain that in the days to come everything will be forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 2:16)
After examining what actually happens on earth, “under the sun”, Kohelet concludes that dispensing justice is simply not something that God does.
Then is there any point in avoiding evil?
Kohelet considers any pleasure in life an unpredictable gift from God.4 But he recommends against either drowning in despair or drowning in sensuality. The wisest course of action is to enjoy simple physical pleasures, friendship, and love.
Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart, because long ago God was favorable … At all times let your clothes be clean and let your head be oiled. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)
Friendship is also valuable.
Better are a pair than one alone, for they get good recompense for their toil. For if they fall, one can raise his friend, but if one falls alone there is no second one to raise him. Also if a pair lie down together they are warm, but for one alone there is no warmth. And if one is attacked, the pair can stand against [the attacker]. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Succumbing to a woman who is a sexual predator leads to bitterness, not enjoyment.5 But if one happens to have a good spouse, that is another reason to rejoice.
Enjoy life with a woman whom you love all the hevel days of your life that have been given to you under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)
According to Kohelet, the only good that humans can do is to appreciate the good things in their ephemeral lives. But later Jewish tradition adds that in situations even when God is not righting wrongs, humans should do what they can to improve the world. Kohelet notes the violent oppression that humans commit, but does not advocate taking any action to reduce it.6 Nevertheless, Kohelet says:
All that you find your hand has the power to do, do it, because there is no doing or learning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
I believe that the best life, however fleeting, is one in which we not only enjoy the physical pleasure, friendship, and love that come our way, but also do everything within our own power to improve life for other humans, and for all living things under the sun.
- Daniel 12:1-3 describes the resurrection of at least some of the dead, perhaps in messianic times. (See my post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.) Another work written in the second century B.C.E., the non-canonical Book of Enoch, describes the separation of virtuous souls from wicked souls in preparation for the resurrection of the virtuous and the torture of sinners. Only after the first century C.E. did the writers of the Christian New Testament and the rabbis of the Talmud imagine an afterlife in which good souls are rewarded in a heaven and bad souls suffer in a hell.
- Exodus 34:6.
- Leviticus 23:40. The Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot is Leviticus/Vayikra 22:26-23:44.
- Ecclesiastes 3:12-14.
- Ecclesiastes 7:26.
- Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.