I didn’t want to believe what my imagination told me hell was like: full of fire and a movie clip streaming all of my sins for me to watch over and over again. There was the girl I called fat and the disrespectful comebacks to my parents, “leave me alone” and “everybody else’s parents lets their kids do it,” and many more sins screened before me while I sit in shame. Not really an ideal vacation spot.
Hell was always a hazy concept and it bothered me that I didn’t really understand what it meant. I was never the philosophical type, so I scraped up people’s halfway answers to my question and glued together my own solution: Hell is a scary place that you go if you’re bad and the length of your stay in this god-forsaken pit depends on how many sins you committed on Earth.
Going through life with this conclusion unsettled me. Not to say I obsessed over it all the time, but whenever I thought about hell, I wondered why I would have to be put through that. I felt extreme guilt for every sin I committed and wondered how long I would have to stay in that place, whatever it contained.
The word “hell” entered my vocabulary around fourth grade. I asked my parents about it at the dinner table. Their eyes widened as I swallowed a drink, laid down my fork and asked them whether or not people go to hell. They reassured me that no one goes to hell, everyone goes to God in Heaven. I nodded, but it was a short while later that their answer was disproved.
The next time hell was brought up was when I was sitting with my fifth-grade cousin who was playing a hockey game on his computer. He kept losing to the machine and in frustration he let the word loose to me, “What the hell?” he asked the computer.
I jolted in my chair next to him.
“Hell’s a bad word,” I retorted. At my age, a year younger than he, the word was pronounced, “H-E-double hockey sticks.” We fourth graders thought it was cooler to say that than the curse itself.
My cousin replied, “No it’s not, it’s just a place you go to. It’s like saying ShopRite is a bad word. It’s not a curse word, Lizzie.” So began my theory of hell being an inevitable stop, right after I picked up my groceries.
It wasn’t until eighth grade that I began questioning my theory. In one of my day school classes my teacher lectured us on hell. He called it gehenum, the Hebrew word for hell.
He was angry with the class for talking during davening. He said that if we talked during Torah reading we will hang from our tongues in hell. (Another lovely image to add to my wild imagination.)
My parents said there was no hell, yet here was my teacher stating that it certainly did exist. I felt betrayed by my parents when my teacher told me Jews believe in hell. But I put myself in my parents’ shoes and thought their response was appropriate for their 9-year old. I knew all along that hell was an actual place, and my parents told me it was not to give me peace of mind. But now, where was I going to find the real answer?
I meet weekly with Rabbi Yitzchak Furst, a teacher at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, N.J, and I brought up the haunting topic with him. Do Jews believe in hell and if so, what’s in store for me?
I told him that a long time ago I asked my parents what hell meant and they said that we all go straight to heaven. Rabbi Furst said that gehenum is for everyone. It’s not a sinner’s country, it’s a place to cleanse our souls, the neshama, that God gave us.
Imagine it’s your birthday and you borrow your friend’s dress. At the party, you spill something on it. Are you going to return it dirty? No, it’s your responsibility to clean it up.
So too with our neshama. All humans do immoral things that taint our souls. Hell is the oven that cleans our stains, Rabbi Furst explained.
“Depending on your sins, the oven may seem hotter or cooler to you, though it is technically the same temperature,” said Rabbi Furst. “Since everyone has sinned during their time on Earth, everyone’s soul must be cleansed before they go to heaven. Depending on how many times you have sinned, you may stay in hell longer.”
This explanation offered great closure for my spiraling-out-of-control theory. It seemed sane and ethical. He made hell seem like a necessary stop, not a dreaded one. Sort of like getting a shot at the doctor — you think it’s going to kill but before you know it the doctor already gave you the shot and you walk out thinking that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be.
I have nothing to fear after death. What I learned was the truth, or something that sounds like it, since no one really knows for sure. Judaism offers closure for me; the Torah helps me understand some unanswered questions to the best of its ability.