Heart and Sheol: Ha’azinu 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you often think about what might happen after we die? Do you feel like you know what will happen? If so, does that impact the way you choose to live your life?

The Torah makes very few references to the idea of an afterlife; yet there is an idea of “Sheol” that comes up a few times:

The Pitch: “For a fire has flared in My wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheol, has consumed the earth and its increase, eaten down to the base of the hills.” – Deuteronomy 32:22

Swing #1: “Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God, though … God has access to Sheol. Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone. While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative. … It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment takes place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate Sheol as ‘hell,’ for the latter is by definition a place of punishment. There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. ‘Deepest’ Sheol refers only to its location rather than a lower compartment.” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The word [Sheol] is widely supposed to derive from Hebrew shaal, ‘to ask, inquire,’ perhaps referring to the practice of necromancy or the notion of calling the dead to account. In biblical texts, Sheol is the land of dust, darkness, forgetfulness, where the ‘shades’ of the dead (refaim) are gathered, although there is a tendency to associate the place with premature or evil death.” – Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Jacob Neusner, editor-in-chief

Swing #3: “It burned and consumed down to the foundations of the mountains. The ‘mountains’ are a simile for the high-ranking personages, all of whom were the first ones to be exiled prior to the destruction of the first Temple.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators seem to think “Sheol” is? Why do you think it was mentioned in Moses’s final song to the Israelites? Do you think Moses fears going to Sheol, in spite of his many great deeds? Should fear of what we don’t know ever overrule what we do know?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: After a meaningful Yom Kippur, we head right into Sukkot, the festival of our joy. And we need your help; we have only one day to put up our sukkah. Bring your tools and join our Men’s Club this Sunday starting at 8:00AM; coffee and donuts will be served.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of the afterlife, Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy liked to tell a story of a dream he had, in which he died and went to heaven, and was surrounded by the greatest baseball players of all time. Just then, the devil called him and challenged his new team to a game. “But you don’t have a chance,” McCarthy exclaimed, “I have all the players!” “I know,” said the devil, “but I have all the umpires.”

Shabbat Shalom!