Do Jews believe in Hell? I am not planning any trips or anything, but was wondering because I have heard mixed reports about this.....
We do believe in a type of hell. But not the one found in cartoons and joke books. Hell is not a punishment. It is in fact a great kindness that we are sent to hell.
The prophets and mystics of Judaism described a spiritual place called Gehennom. This is usually translated as Hell, but a better translation would be the Supernal Washing Machine. Because that's exactly how it works. Our soul is cleansed in Gehennom in the same way as our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.
We don't put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure, only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favour by putting them through this process.
But put yourself in your socks' shoes. If you would be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you too would start to feel that someone doesn't like you. If only the socks would know that this is all for their good. Only after going through a washing cycle can the socks be worn again.
So too with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul. And every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If at the end of our life we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing, our soul is flung around at intense spiritual heat, to rid it of any dirty residue it may have gathered and prepare it for entry into heaven.
This is no punishment. It may be painful, but it is for our good. Our soul can only shine once the stains have been fully removed.
Of course this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done, make amends with the people whom we have hurt, we can leave this world with clean socks.
That's why our sages said, "Repent one day before you die." And what should you do if you don't know which day that will be? Repent today.