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Our Afterlife

Rabbi Richard Plavin

It is very important when you send an email message to double check the address to which you send the message. This story illustrates just how important.

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel plans. So, the husband left Minneapolis and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. But he was not as careful as he should have been about the email address.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who had past away following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My loving wife

Subject: I’ve arrived

I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then. Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is hot down here!!!!!

It has been a long day of fasting, and we needed a lift. I shared that rather irreverent story because it very much touches on the subject I want to discuss this afternoon.
From time to time I have been asked, “What do Jews believe happens to a person after he dies? Do we believe in an afterlife, or in Heaven and Hell?”

In most instances, I think the questioner already has an answer in mind. They know how important the afterlife is in other religions and they assume we don’t believe in it at all. “After all Rabbi, Judaism emphasizes how we live in this world and not whether we will get into heaven.”

Several times every year I get requests from students at MCC to attend a religious service and then to interview me. It’s an assignment in their World Religions class to find a representative of some exotic faith and to write up their experience. I do it happily and I urge the students to carefully prepare their questions before they come in to see me. Of course, the students are all Christians and invariably, they ask me what Judaism teaches about the afterlife.

Why is it that Christianity, which, after all, grew out of Judaism, puts so much emphasis on the next world while our Judaism is so this worldly in its orientation?
Actually, this is true of both our daughter religions. We know for example that in Islam, suicide bombers are motivated by the promise of immediately going to the highest level of heaven. In Christianity, missionaries are encouraged by the thought that in converting a non-believer they are saving him from the tortures of hell. In the period of the Spanish Inquisition, innocent human beings were tortured on the theory that a few days of horrific suffering in this world is preferable to eternal torment in the netherworld.

So what do we Jews believe about an afterlife? Whenever I am asked, “Rabbi, what does Judaism teach about this or that?” I remind people that Jews rarely agree on anything. It is also true that we have a tradition going back for over 3,000 years, and the library of our holy books is vast. You can find just about every belief you can imagine, and many you can’t, over the broad structure we call Judaism. In regard to the Afterlife, you can find positions about heaven, hell, resurrection, reincarnation, migration of souls; you name we, we’ve got it.

This is a complicated subject, but it makes sense to speak about it today as we assemble for Yizkor and have in mind our loved ones no longer in this world.
In our tradition, we speak about Gan Eden and Gehenom, heaven and hell; we refer to Olam HaBah, the world to come, and in the Amida prayer we recite so frequently, we praise God’s power to bring the dead to eternal life? So why is there any question about whether Judaism believes in an afterlife?

The truth is, a study of the Torah will reveal no explicit mention of a world beyond the grave. When Abraham dies, the Torah says, “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” That’s it. Done and over. And following the death of each of the patriarchs, the verse is nearly identical.

In the Psalms, we read, “Lo ha-maytim y’haleluyah” “The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence. But we the living will bless the Lord now and forever. Hallelujah.” In other words, for the Psalmist, death is the end.

As Judaism evolved, and we moved from the Biblical period into the rabbinic age, there was a distinct evolution concerning the existence of an afterlife. It was a matter of strong debate, but we did come to concensus. Judaism today is Rabbinic Judaism, not Biblical Judaism. The rabbis had a problem with the idea of life ending with physical death. Judaism, unlike some other religions, does not denigrate physical life. We revere the body of flesh and blood. That is why we have the loving ritual of Tahara, the purification of the body after death; that is why we forbid cremation, as an insult to the physical body. It is with our feet that we run to do a mitzvah. It is with our hands that we reach out to the poor. It is with our mouth that we utter words of comfort and loving-kindness. How can these be anything but holy?

At the same time, when we say that each of us, every human being, was created in the divine image, we surely do not have a physical image in mind. If that were the case, why don’t we all look the same? Why are some of us tall and others short, some heavy and others thin? Why am I loosing my hair? When I reference the Divine Image, I am referring to the N’shama, the soul, the indwelling of God that makes each of us a holy being. You won’t find it with an X-Ray or even an MRI, but there are surely moments in each of our lives when we can feel its presence. So, when I wonder, is there a life beyond this one, I think about that N’shama, and I ask, “How can Godliness die a physical death? Does it make sense that when our physical organs can no longer function, our spiritual selves must die as well?”

The rabbis had another problem with the idea of physical death being an absolute end. They looked around at this world and they were not happy with the status quo. A world in which there is so much poverty and illness, a world in which good people suffer and the wicked prosper, cannot be the last word. There must be another world in which these wrongs are made right. For the rabbis, Olam HaBah, the world to come, is a protest against the injustices and imperfections of this world. We talk about Tikun Olan, repairing the world, because it is obvious that this world is broken and needs to be fixed; everything in it is far from perfect. There is a huge gap between the world as it is and the world that ought to be. That vacuum is filled by belief in another world.

And yet, there is a problem. The rabbis did not want the belief in a better world after this one to become an escape clause from responsibility. For them, other worldliness is suspect lest it be exploited by those who seek to forever delay addressing the immediate needs of this world.

There is a wonderful Hasidic teaching from Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. He said that God created skepticism so that we “may not let the poor starve, putting them off with the joys of the next world or simply telling them to trust in God who will help them, instead of supplying them with food.”

What we see is that Judaism has a very ambivalent attitude toward an afterlife. It is as if we know it exists, but let’s not make too much noise about it. Judaism puts this life above all else. That’s why in our liturgy on these holy days we refer to God as “Melech Chafetz b’chayim, The King who delights in life.” Think about it, we see death as a source of impurity. When you go to a funeral, you have to wash your hands before entering the house of Shiva. The cemetery is a place of impurity because of its connection with death. The home is a holy place, because that is where life goes on. When someone dies, the mourners say the Kaddish prayer, a text which mentions neither death nor the world to come. It speaks about this world, and praises God and asks Him to make it a world of peace. At Pesach, we end the Seder with Chad Gadya, the folk song whose climax is God’s defeat of the Angel of Death.

Our Amida prayer speaks of God keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust, with those no longer physically with us. Let me tell you how I understand that. Just before Rosh Hashanah I went to visit my parents’ graves in Wethersfield. I looked at the grave markers and meditated on their names, which in the Hebrew included the names of my grandparents. In those few minutes, I thought about the simcha I celebrated just over a month ago, my granddaughters’ Bat Mitzvah. I looked at my mother’s name, Ella, and I thought about my granddaughter, Eliana, who was named for her. How proud my mom and dad, and my grandparents, would have been to see Eliana come of age as a Jewish woman. But then it occurred to me: why do I doubt that they were there? Surely they did feel that pride. I don’t believe that the next world is a particular geographic location; it is a realm of the spirit. We can’t ask, “Where is heaven?” We need to ask, “When is heaven?” Moments such as Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah were surely one answer to that question.

My colleague in California, Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote a poem that he included in a eulogy. A woman had died just a month before he granddaughters’ Bat Mitzvah and the young girl asked the rabbi where grandma had gone. This poem was his response:

The young child asked, “Where is Grandma?”
And the adults gasped
Not knowing what to say
Certainly not in the earth
Buried, covered over with soil and small rocks
Certainly not in the heavens
Distant, far off, a fantasy of the imagination.
Much closer than earth, much closer than heaven
Grandma, dear child, is within us all.
In our memories of her kindness and goodness
Memories that are not faint echoes but resonate in us each day
Grandma is in our tenderness with each other, in our loyalty to family
For friends, in our love of our people.
Nothing noble dies with death.
Warm embraces, wise counsel do not
Evaporate into the air.
Grandma is not “where” but “when”
Whenever we gather together to celebrate festivals
Whenever we offer help to the poor, the homeless, the sick
Whenever we defend the innocent
Raise our voice against injustice
Grandma’s influence is present.
Grandma stood for ideas and ideals
Grandma stood for care and concern and comfort of the other. What she stood for we now stand for.
Even as we rise for the Kaddish
In her memory,
In her honor
For her immortality.

When I set out to write this sermon I knew I had one great advantage. If I tell my congregants what happens to us after we die, who can say I am wrong?

This I can say for certain: My words have been ‘dvarim hayotzim min ha-lev” “Words that came directly from my heart.” They reflect what I believe, at least for today.

I want to conclude with a parable from the writings of Yechiel Tuckachinsky.

There were once twins about to be born who were still in the womb of their mother. One was religious and one a cynic. The cynic says, “It looks like the end is coming soon for us, because I can feel movement, and we will probably be expelled from here soon. I don’t see how we can possibly survive.”

The other twin responds, “Stop being a skeptic. There has to be some reason why we have been here for 9 months. It would be absurd for us to be here all this time just to go to extinction.”

The nonbeliever says, “Sure, you and your religion. You are a fanatic. You are an optimist, but we are doomed.”

Suddenly the water inside the womb bursts. There is a pushing and pounding. The twins realize that they are being forced from their home. The traumatic moment is here. As fate would have it, the believer is expelled first. The skeptic inside is most anxious to hear what is going on the other side, and strains very closely to the walls of the womb and hears from without crying and screaming. He says, “Too bad for my brother, I guess I was right after all. Poor boy, he is gone.”

While on the other side, at the very same moment, happy mother and father are wishing each other Mazal tov at the birth of a new child, who has gone from one kind of existence to another.”

None of us would doubt that a fetus exists in a world before this life and we call the passage to this world ‘birth.’ The passage is traumatic. So too we believe that when our story is finished here, we may well have another traumatic passage. Perhaps, we will hear a cry and the scream as we leave this world. It will be someone in the World to Come is saying, “Mazal tov, welcome home, glad to have you back!”

As we recall our loved ones in this Yizkor hour, may their presence be with us, in our hearts and in our souls, and may that presence forever be a blessing.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782