As discussed in the previous chapter, the word chech, palate is actually the subroot of the word chinuch,education. The ability to taste or discover truth develops in stages, represented by the permutations or mirror images of the Hebrew word chech, which is comprised of the Hebrew consonants het and kaf. When the order of these consonants is reversed, the word koach, meaning “power/strength,” is produced.
First, the educator must sensitize his students to truth, cultivating in them a desire (or “sweet tooth”) for authenticity. He proceeds by choosing the healthiest and most digestible lesson and serving it attractively, so the students will want to taste it and thus open themselves to that new dimension of reality. The educator’s influence here is circumstantial, he brings his students into contact with an idea but does not yet attempt to modify their personalities. His next step, however, is to actually infiltrate into the students’ psyche and begin to refine their characters–to strengthen their sensitivity to truth.
Sensitivity to truth requires devotion to truth. The educator needs to impress upon his students that they must be willing to pay any price for that most precious, vital and indispensable commodity, and not to tolerate the seeming convenience of lies and unreality. In order to convey this lesson, the educator encourages his students’ sensitivity to essence and to the needs of others while dulling their sensitivity to superficialities and to their own needs for physical comfort. In this way the students detach from things that lure people into complacency and tolerance for deceit. When they express their commitment to truth through concrete actions and sacrifices, they can receive ever more subtle and potent revelations of truth and light–that is, “the goodness (and sweetness) of God” [see footnote below] that King David mentions in his Psalms.
As a compass seeks north, so a person with refined tastes will orient toward that inner source in God that lies beneath the surface of all experience. This ability is the foundation of wisdom.
The Talmud describes the World to Come as the time when God will “remove the sun from its container.” This refers to an era when God’s truth and spiritual light will irradiate the world with an unrestrained intensity, equivalent to the experience of physical light at the surface of the sun. The growth in our lives prepares us for this experience. The Talmud says that those who have achieved a level of holiness in life will be given the power to endure this searing blast of revelation. Their strengthened and refined sensitivities will allow them to bask in this experience of God that would otherwise be a consuming fire.
While the sages of the Talmud tell us that we will all reach that level of holiness someday, there remains the problem of how? After all, we are obviously far from it now.
Of course, those who have devoted their lives to good, seekers of truth and God are already at a level of holiness and need no final adjustments. They have spent their lives preparing for this unrestrained revelation of Godliness, and when it arrives, they will make the transition smoothly, rejoicing and embracing it with ultimate pleasure. They have, in their lives, only desired God, and now they are able to experience Him without the frustrating barrier of gross physicality.
Others who have pursued material and temporary pleasures, abandoning a relationship with good as defined by Torah, will not have done the work of refining themselves and cultivating a taste for Godliness. Since these souls have rejected or neglected truth in their lives, they will be unable to enjoy the pleasures of the World to Come (where there only exists the Light of Divine Truth) until their coarseness and impurity are purged from them through suffering the ordeal of “embarrassment.” This is what is popularly called “hell”–the burning shame that a person feels when “his deeds and utterances march before him and make proclamation concerning him.”
This is the consequence we face after death for not having devoted ourselves in life to the truth as it is now revealed. This purgation, though momentarily painful, is in fact a great blessing for it transforms all who pass through it, rendering them capable of appreciating the spiritual pleasures of the World to Come. It works something like the process of refining gold. In both instances the raw ore is placed in an oven, at extremely high temperatures until the impurity turns to ash, and all that remains is a pure golden nugget.
Lest we err in thinking that it makes no difference whether we indulge ourselves in this world and pays our dues in the next, or whether we suffer by restraining our passions here, in order to collect our pleasure in the World to Come, a word from the great 12th century Kabbalist Nachmanides should serve as caution. He writes that God has done human beings a great kindness by allowing us to work off our debt in the physical world where all pain and discomfort are only temporary (at most for a lifetime), are of bearable proportions, and there is always joy and pleasure interspersed. All of Job’s seventy years of suffering (which include the loss of all his property and children as well as a permanent plague of boils and physical disease) do not compare to even one instant of the soul’s suffering in the afterlife. This is because the body acts as an insulating barrier that protects the soul from too much discomfort. The body or mind goes into shock if the pain becomes too intense. In the afterlife, the soul is totally exposed and there is no protection and no place to hide. Therefore, the opportunity to face the consequences of our transgressions in this world, rather than the next, is a gift of love that God has built into the system for our benefit.