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Afterlife (YK 5777)

At this year’s Selichot program on Judaism and the Afterlife, it became clear that rabbis in general do not discuss the topic sermonically, but there is interest in the subject. I have done adult education classes on the afterlife and I hate to think that there is any topic that I won’t address from the Bima, besides politics, and so I decided that the time was now. So why is it that rabbis don’t preach about the afterlife, probably because Judaism is so this worldly focused and focusing on the afterlife was seen as Christian. But let’s for a moment assume that each and everyone one of you out there have gotten the message that Judaism wants you to engage in Torah study and do mitzvot and let’s talk for a moment about Judaism and the afterlife.

So the first thing you need to know is that while the rabbis have argued about halakhah, Jewish law over the centuries; they did not argue in the same way about beliefs. They were content to let different people hold different beliefs and did not seek to harmonize incompatible beliefs found within our tradition. It is all a matter of priorities and the afterlife simply was not a priority. For example, there are a number of midrashim, Jewish legends on the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac that was the subject of our Torah reading back on Rosh Hashanah. In one, Abraham is eager to sacrifice Isaac who is a reluctant subject; but there is another where Isaac is an eager subject, while Abraham is a reluctant participant. And finally, there is one where Abraham actually sacrifices Isaac and God is forced to resurrect him. None of them is in the Torah and you can find all of them side by side within rabbinic literature. Take your pick or reject them all.

In the Torah there is no mention of an afterlife, it’s just not there, people live and die; but when they die, they are no longer part of the story. The closest we come is when someone dies and it says, “He was gathered to his kin.” (Gen. 35:29) That could be interpreted to mean that his soul is being reunited those who have gone before, but even the concept of soul is not clearly delineated in the Torah. The Hebrew term nefesh which in later Jewish writings is soul, in the Bible seems to simply mean person. The Bible seems to lack dualism of body and soul that the Greeks introduced into Western thought and eventually into Jewish thought as well.

Later in the Bible, there is the strange story of King Saul and the witch of Endor. He goes to her and at his request she raises the ghost of the Prophet Samuel who foretells the death of King Saul and the Israelites. (I Samuel 28:6-19) But the Torah is clear in telling us not to do this, “Let no one be found among you who ... consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

In the Book of Job, we are told that the dead go down to Sheol which seems to be a dark pit where the dead find themselves cut off from life and God. (Job 3:11-19) not so different from the Greek concept of Hades. The first hint of resurrection of the dead and reward and punishment is found in the Biblical book of Daniel, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, other to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence. (12:2)

Rabbinic Judaism took seriously the concept of resurrection of the dead; that at some messianic time in the future the laws of nature would come to an end and who had ever lived would be resurrected and live again. There was no explanation of how this would work, presumably if laws of nature no longer are enforced, the seemingly impossible can take place. That is why when a Jew has a limb amputated, it usually buried at their future graveside, so that upon resurrection, you will be intact. And that is also why Judaism was slow accept organ donation, but ultimately organ donation was elevated to the level of mitzvah, it is something that we should do, that we are religiously obligated to. Again without worrying how all this fits together.

The concept of Olam Haba, the world-to-come or Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden – namely heaven is found in early rabbinic texts from two thousand years ago. We read a teaching of the great Hillel, the Elder, “one who acquired Torah has acquired the world-to-come. (Avot 2:8). His counterpart, Shammai, is quoted in the Talmud as saying, “there will be three groups on the Day of Judgment – one thoroughly righteous, one thoroughly wicked and one that is intermediate. The righteous will be inscribed for everlasting life; the wicked will be doomed to Gehinnom; and the intermediate will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again. (BT Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a)

Gehinnom was initially an actual place outside of Jerusalem where human sacrifice was practiced. But ultimately in rabbinic literature it became like the Catholic purgatory, a place where souls were purified after death before moving on to Olam Habah, the World to Come. But Olam Haba was not the goal, rather it was a motivation to live right in this life even though we did not see the material rewards that Biblical texts promised. Olam Haba became the reward for a good life that did not materialize here on earth.

The concept developed that how a long a soul spent in Gehinnom depended upon how you lived your life. If you were a saintly pious person who studied Torah and did mitzvot, then your sojourn would be brief before your soul ascended to Olam Haba. However, if you were a wicked sinner, then it could take your soul up to a year to get to Olam Haba. There is a story told of the famous Rabbi Akiva who saw a man in a dream running with a sack of coal on his back and is informed that this is his punishment for the life he lived. However, if the rabbi could find his son and teach him to say Kaddish, when the congregation answered yihey shmey raba it would lighten his burden. Rabbi Akiva finds the son, teaches him and brings him to the synagogue to say kaddish. In a subsequent dream the man thanks him for lightening his load. And so we find within Judaism the idea that when children say kaddish for their parents that we help their souls in Gehinnom. And because the time of purification was no more than a year, kaddish was initially said for a year, later it was shortened to 11 months, so that no one would have to think that their parent was totally wicked and needed a full year to get out of Gehinnom. It wasn’t until recently that the Conservative Movement approved a Teshuvah, a Religious position paper, advocating a return to saying Kaddish for 12 months. The thesis of the paper being that most modern Conservative Jewish don’t believe that by saying Kaddish they are helping their parent’s soul. Rather that there is benefit to the mourner in saying kaddish daily for the year.

Because there was so little developed about life after death within classical Judaism, Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism was free to develop it. In Kabalistic literature you find angels, demons, magical creatures and the ghosts of the dead. In Kabbalah they also developed the concept of Gilgul Hanefesh, or reincarnation; they posited that souls would live on earth, return to Olam Haba and then be returned to the earth in new bodies to live again.

Many 20th century Jews returned to the Biblical idea that we live in this life and there is nothing else, no Olam Haba or Gehinnom; and that too was accepted. So you see you can have your pick of Jewish views of the afterlife, they all exist within our tradition and all are equally valid. So you are free to believe what you will, with the hope that whatever belief you hold, leads you to live a more moral, ethical and observant Jewish life.

Our Jewish mourning practices are psychologically based, seeking burial as soon as possible, knowing that the most difficult period is between death and burial. Doing that which is natural throughout the process – wooden coffin and cotton shrouds to return to the earth along with the body; opposing embalming which retards the process of return and also cremation which speeds up the process. Shiva allowing the mourner a week to put life on hold and simply give vent to their grief; Sheloshim, a month, to mourn, resuming all of life’s obligations, but refraining from social gatherings and celebrations; and in the case of a parent, the full year of mourning and saying kaddish.

Some follow a tradition of not saying Yizkor until after the first yahrzeit; others recite Yizkor immediately following the death. This year as we say Yizkor we remember the loss of Steven Brass and Jason Dodds, both taken from us much too soon. There are those in our community who have lost a parent, a sibling and even a child this year. And we remember them.

We are not only members of individual families, but also members of the Jewish people and citizens of the world. Therefore, at this moment of Yizkor, we also remember the following people whose lives made a difference to the world with thanks to Rabbi David Krishef for compiling the list.
Yogi Berra ... sadly, it’s over.

Daniel Thompson, who invented the bagel making machine.

Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who saved six Americans who escaped from the embassy in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

Melissa Mathison, screenwriter for the movie ET, who showed us how to welcome the stranger.

Vera B. Williams was an author and illustrator of beautiful, timeless, powerful children’s books depicting Asian-American, black and multiracial families and showed fathers doing the active work of parenting.

Yitzhak Navon, fifth president of Israel.

Meadowlark Lemon, the clown prince of the Harlem Globetrotters.

David Bowie, who transcended music, art, and fashion, and taught us that there is empathy beyond difference.

Eugene Borowitz, who taught that reason and self-imposed ethics needed the undergirding of what he called a covenantal relationship with God.

Antonin Scalia, whose elegant and acidic opinions inspired a movement of legal thinkers and ignited liberal critics.

Harper Lee, whose first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American.

Ray Tomlinson, who sent the first email and choose the @-sign for email addresses.

Nancy Reagan, an active, power behind the scenes first lady, Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon and great love.

George Martin, the English record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer and musician referred to the fifth Beatle by Paul McCartney.

Merle Haggard, who used what may have been country’s greatest vocal instrument to sing about alcohol’s shadow, the heartbroken, and the displaced.

Prince, a musical prodigy who could play every instrument and sing every vocal line on his albums, a wildly prolific songwriter, a virtuoso on guitars, keyboards and drums.

Meir Dagan, ex-head of the Israeli Mosad intelligence agency, a fierce protector of Israel and Jews.

Andrew Grove, the intellectual giant of Silicon Valley, builder of Intel.

Joe Medicine Crow, the Crow Nation’s last chief, activist, author, and WWII military hero.

Morley Safer, whose 46 years on 60 minutes constituted the longest run anyone ever had on primetime news.

Bill Backer, adman behind “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey.

Muhammad Ali, the principled, defiant, heavyweight champ whose charisma defined a style of boxing.

Elie Wiesel, icon of conscience.

Pat Summit, the most successful coach in Division I college basketball history.

Kenny Baker, the 3”8’ actor who was hired for his biggest role, in which he was neither seen nor heard, in which he played R2D2 in the first 6 Star Wars movies.

Steven Hill, the original mission impossible leader, who was fired in part because he had embraced traditional Judaism and wouldn’t work on Shabbat.

Gene Wilder, the brilliant comedic star who teamed up with Mel Brooks to create memorable eccentric and neurotic characters.

Arnold Palmer, who popularized golf among the working class.

Shimon Peres, who, over a 70 year political career, held virtually every significant political office in the State of Israel culminating in President.

Jacob Neusner, the impossibly prolific scholar of Judaism, translator of virtually every text in the canon of Rabbinic Jewish literature.
All these do we remember, together with the ones who were so close to us, for they too are a part of our world.

At this time we turn to page 290 for the Yizkor service.

Sat, July 31 2021 22 Av 5781