Talking about Dying is Really Talking about Living

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.

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