As Passover approaches, most of the questions I have received lately have been about matzoh and seders; slavery and freedom. In the midst of the lead up to our spring festival, a dear congregant said to me recently, “Sometimes I just think there’s nothing but a blank screen when it’s all over”. With a sweet sense of curiosity and sensitivity, he continued, “Not that I’m planning on dying anytime soon, but sometimes I just think and feel sad about the fact that when it’s over, it’s over for good. What do you think, rabbi? Do you think that there will be anything for us after we die?”
I asked him why he thought of this question now, during this season? He told me that he often thinks of such questions, but during holiday-times, he thinks more about life and death. I am guessing he is not alone. The theological quandary of eschatology… the question of what happens to us after we die has puzzled theologians and lay-people alike for millennia.
I happen to believe strongly in the idea of an afterlife. When I have the sad occasion/privilege of witnessing death, I have no doubt that our bodies are mere capsules for our souls. Our souls are truly what give each of us our unique gleam and charm. Although it is obvious that our outer beings reflect the beautiful diversity of our world, it is the soul which I think most reflects our connection with the Divine. It is the “stuff” in our gut that makes us funny and sweet; angry and sad; energetic and charismatic. Indeed, when we talk about innate talents or gifts, those characteristics which we claim make us special and extraordinary……when we speak of the elements which distinguish us from everyone else; we are talking about the traits of the soul.
Moreover, if it is God who nurtures and cultivates our souls, then why would that relationship end just because our outer capsules give out? Indeed, Judaism has a long history in its belief in afterlife. Over time, there have been different and varying philosophies about the subject, but the belief is indeed a “mainstream” belief as far as Jewish understanding goes.
My congregant, about whom I write above, just finished reading Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I personally have always been a fan of movies, books and theater which take a risk expressing their thoughts about afterlife through their art.
In his book, Mr. Albom writes about a wounded war veteran who felt his life was lived without any inspiration or passion. On his 83rd birthday, a tragic accident kills him. His afterlife is a place where life is explained to him by five people, some of whom he knew, and others he did not. One by one, the war veteran meets these five people, realizes his connection to them, and each of them give meaning to his supposedly meaningless life. By the end of the book, they help answer the question: “Why was I here?”
Of course, this seems to be the point of Albom’s book. Thinking about death and afterlife is just one more way of asking why our existence in this world is important. Thinking about death can actually be seen as another way of asking ourselves why living fully is so worth our while.
I wonder if during this Passover season, we might think about who those five people might be in our life. As a spiritual exercise it might be worthwhile to ask who we might want to meet from our life, in heaven. If they are still here, we can have the conversation now, and if they are not, we can think about what we would say to them if they were still here.
All of us, I think, share secrets of heaven, as Mitch Albom writes, “Each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.”
Knowing that there could still be more to come after we reach our end, we might in the meantime, try to make our stories count while we are still here on earth.
I ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.
As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.
The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.
In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.
Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.
My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
Catching the attention of many readers of breaking news in the Jewish world today is the story of Ari Mandel and his attempt (in jest) to sell his place in heaven to the highest bidder on ebay. As reported in The Forward and Haaretz, Mandel started the bidding at 99c but, within a few hours, the bidding was up to $100,000, upon which ebay pulled the listing citing its rules that one cannot sell non-tangible goods.
As reported by The Forward, in conversation with Mandel, ebay was alerted to the attempted sale after news spread on ultra-orthodox online community sites, where great offence was taken. Mandel left the ultra-orthodox community several years ago and self identifies as a cultural, atheist Jew. His background, however, enabled him to create a posting that was peppered with yiddish and theological reference points. Even the false name under which he posted – Rachmuna Litzlon, was playful, meaning “God save us” in Aramaic.
While in many ways a trivial story, the attention it is getting today is quite fascinating. Perhaps its simply because of the chutzpah involved in coming up with the idea and posting, even as a joke. Perhaps its the fact that there was real bidding going on. I’d like to presume that the bidding, likewise, was in jest. And then, according to the above reports, there was some response from ultra-orthodox communities that demonstrated they were not amused. Apparently they are not familiar with ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway and the rather good PR that the Mormon church has received from being a rather good sport about it all.
I’m also struck by the timing of this story, coming on the heels of a report this week that the Pope, in one of his daily homilies, made mention that all can be redeemed, not just Catholics. The Vatican has put out a statement since declaring that the Pope’s words should not be taken to mean that non-Catholics have a place in heaven. Rather, he was talking about a meeting ground where Catholics and non-Catholics can work together in doing good in the world.
A search for ‘afterlife’ or ‘the world to come’ here at myjewishlearning.com will give you plenty to contemplate when it comes to the plurality of thinking on what this might look like and how we might get there. Personally, I’m drawn to the wisdom of Maimonides on this topic, as he writes in his introduction to Perek Helek – a commentary on the Mishnah. He reviews a variety of beliefs held by different kinds of people about the nature of the afterlife. In summary, he suggests that all of these ideas teach us little except for the limitations of the human imagination and he proposes that the variety of ideas tell us more about what people value in this life than anything about the reality of what may lie beyond the world that we know.
Whether via ebay, or homilies from the Pope, we humans continue to have a fascination with what may come next, and who deserves to get there. I tend to be a pragmatist (and maybe a realist) on matters of life after death. I take great comfort in the thought of an ongoing existence in the form of energy or soul, although I recognize that I’m living in the realm of ‘I don’t know’ on this one – how could I truly claim otherwise? I don’t need to know the details, as I don’t believe I have a great deal of control over the outcome. My desire to try to do good and contribute positively to this world is not related to any concept of reward in the next one. Perhaps that’s what the Pope was trying to convey – doing good in the here and now is what matters, however you get there. And perhaps that’s why, while it was a cute joke, I have little interest in taking someone else’s place in whatever the hereafter looks like, or in the idea that such a place can be acquired at all, whether through bidding or through some other quantifiable set of parameters.