Speaking Philosophy with a Seven-Year-Oldby Rabbi Jacob Rupp September 26, 2018
“Why do some people start a religion?” my son asked me one day while we were driving.
“To get other people to listen to them,” I replied after a few seconds of thought.
Citing the particular religion and religious leader we had been discussing, my son asked, “But who cares if people listen to them if they are old and going to die anyway?”
This was too good of an opportunity to miss. As a parent, there is always the fun challenge of taking complex concepts and breaking them down into bite size pieces for very young and impressionable minds. Like the time I had to figure out how to explain politics, democracy and taxes to my then five-year-old daughter.
So, how do you explain our desire to create a posthumous legacy to a seven-year-old?
It actually wasn’t as hard as I thought. At that time, I was still smarting from reading my teenage religious musings I had recently come across in the shrine to my scholastic accomplishments that my mom keeps at her house. There amongst all my awards, letters of recommendations, old report cards and projects, I found a few high school writing samples that made me stop in my tracks.
In many ways, reading my old writing was like finding the insect stuck in amber that served as the foundation for the debacle of “Jurassic Park” (does anyone remember that movie anymore?). Here, laid out in front of me and preserved for all time is a sample of my tenth and eleventh grade mind. And also, similar to “Jurassic Park,” I wondered if perhaps my writing shouldn’t have survived the many eons since high school. The words seem to contain so many secrets and foundations for the beliefs I would develop later in life.
One essay I had written was a many page diatribe about my awakening Jewish awareness and my philosophic and dogmatic opinions. I had “found” myself before I became orthodox. What did I believe?
One of the main principles that I had been raised with is the notion that Jews don’t believe in/don’t claim to know about the afterlife. I was under the impression we only focused on making the world a better place.
Of course, making the world a better place isn’t simple, possible, or even objectively good. The notion of making the world a better place, when based on an individual’s moral code, has given rise to such catastrophes as fascism, communism and other social experiments that left millions of graves in their wakes.
As a teen I falsely assumed, as do most young people, that most people are “good” (which of course was good according to my upper middle class, postmodern, liberal definition).
In college, I was shocked to learn that for thousands of years we Jews have not only believed in an afterlife, but see it as our primary existence. As it says in the Ethics of the Fathers, “this physical existence is nothing but a preparation for our true spiritual existence that occurs after we leave our physical bodies.”
Just like without tests, grades and exit exams our scholastic performance can’t be measured, after we die G-d considers our actions against the truth and our potential and rewards us accordingly. The Talmud explains that this world is the world of preparation, the next world is Shabbat where we eat the fruits of our labor but cannot create anew.
This fundamental truth, which is deeply planted in the human sub or not so sub conscious is what fuels all our higher-level actions. We want to be more than ourselves. Even in sports, fashion and art—human expressions that are fundamentally rooted in physicality and time, the fan/spectator/artist/practitioner seeks to create greater meaning for themselves. To create a piece of art that lasts forever. To create a sports dynasty. I even heard one of the executives of the UFC (the mixed martial arts league) explain that man’s essence is his ability to fight and we are simply another chain in the transmission that was first formalized by the ancient Greeks. Sounds like Passover to me!
So that’s what I told my son. I said that just like when we do mitzvos to build our world to come, all people want to live for eternity because it’s how we are wired.
My son thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well, how stupid would this person feel if he knew how many bad things his religion caused.”
So it’s not such a tough concept for a seven-year-old after all. We all want to create a legacy, but we mortals suffer from a lack of clarity as to what choices will ultimately be the best for our benefit now and in the hereafter.
“We are lucky we’re Jewish,” I told my son, “because G-d told us what to do so we didn’t have to make mistakes. Now we just need to live up to what we are supposed to do.”