The Difference Between Heaven and Hell
A Old Story, Adapted by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
The world was in turmoil, with war and disease afflicting far too many, and little hope coming from those who would rule. Rabbi Chaim Ozer ben Sholem oo’Vracha, the Nashelsker Rebbe, retreated from the conflicts to the peace and quiet of his study. And there, amid his Scroll of the Torah, his mystical texts and other books, he sought to learn the secrets of the Afterlife. And he prayed to the ReBeSheh, the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Sovereign of the Universe, the Lord God, to show him what reward lay after this life: that is, the secrets of the Afterlife, of sechar v’onesh, Reward or Punishment, Heaven and Hell.
And the Rebbe fasted, the better to afflict his Nefesh, his Earthly Soul, and prayed that God might show him a sign. He fasted for three days, drinking only coconut water, for his holistic rabbi friend, Rabbi Teva ben Adama, had advised him regarding its efficacy. At last, exhausted by his mighty rigors, he fell asleep. And he dreamed.
And in his dream, the Prophet Elijah came to him, and said,
“Arise, Reb Chaim Ozer, Thou Holy Nashelsker Rebbe! The Holy One has heard your pleadings, and has, accordingly, sent me to guide you to what you seek. First, I am thirsty. You have, maybe perhaps, something to drink?”
And the Rebbe offered the Prophet a large, frosty bottle of ice-cold coconut water. And the prophet tasted, and asked:
“What is this stuff? It tastes odd.”
“Behold, Reb Eliyahu!” answered the Rebbe, “for it is coconut water, loaded with potassium, and—and—lots of other nutrients.”
“What is this tripe?” asked Elijah, “for I have never drunk such foul stuff; nay, not since I dwelt in the wilderness, and the ravens brought me food. Now, that was bad, but this is not much better. Never mind: touch my robe, and we will be gone.”
So the Nashelsker Rebbe, Reb Chaim Ozer, touched Elijah’s robe. And they were instantly whirled through Space and Time.
“I didn’t ask for Time,” said Elijah, a bit testily.
“Don’t get angry with God,” warned the Nashelsker.
“Don’t be giving me coconuts,” warned the Prophet back.
Finally, the two, Prophet and Rabbi, found themselves in a mighty hall, lit by torches. And there, they saw a long table, full of foods of all kinds—kosher, of course—dried fruits and nuts; cakes and spiced puddings of different types, foods of all kinds—meats and roasts, deli and sliced meat, vegetables, salads, and twelve different kinds of dressings. There were people of all sizes, shapes, and colors seated around the table.
“What a great spread!” said the Nashelsker, “I’m hungry.”
“Shush!” said the Prophet, “Watch what’s happening here.”
Upon closer examination, the Rebbe could see that all the diners seated around the table each held a fork in one hand, and a spoon in the other. However, their upper arms were bound to their sides, from the elbows up. They were able to reach out and spear the food on their fork or scoop it up on the spoon, but could not reach it into their mouths. And so, the hellish inhabitants were forced to gaze at one another, hungry-eyed and empty-mouthed, for all eternity.
“This is Hell,” said the Nashelsker, “clearly, we are in Hell. Is there nothing we can do?”
“Nothing,” whispered Elijah, taking a small drink of the coconut water, “Pah! Awful stuff. Well, nothing more to do, here. Come now, Rebbe: touch my robe. Off to our next stop.”
The Rebbe touched his hem, and off they went, fast as lightning. He closed his eyes, feeling dizzy. The cosmic winds blew, and the stars flashed by….
When the Rebbe opened his eyes, he was amazed to see—the same hall, same table, same types of eaters—even down to having their arms lashed to their sides.
“But, but—weren’t we already here?” asked the puzzled Rebbe, “Aren’t we still in Hell?”
“Be still, and watch,” said Elijah, tossing his now-empty coconut water plastic bottle into a nearby BE HEAVENLY—RECYCLE! Bin, “Feh!” said the Prophet, “Never again. I’d sooner drink the Dead Sea. Oh—take a look, Rebbe.”
The Rebbe watched, and saw: the Heavenly denizens, unlike their Hell-sent counterparts were, indeed, bound by their elbow-restricting ropes, and, also like them, held a fork in one hand, a spoon in the other. But there was a crucial difference.
As the Nashelsker Rebbe watched, each diner carefully reached out with his fork or spoon, stabbed or scooped up a bit of food, and reached out—to feed their neighbor.
“Is that it, then?” asked the Nashelsker, “Is that the only difference? In Hell, we think only of ourselves. But in Heaven--?”
“—We feed each other,” said Elijah. “Come! I’ll fetch us a drink.”