YIZKOR / SHMINI ATZERET 5771
On this final Yizkor day at the end of the holiday season, as we remember our loved ones who have died, I thought it appropriate to discuss with you what Judaism has to say about life after death. I begin with a remarkable quote by Dag Hammerskjold: “No choice is uninfluenced by the way in which the personality regards its destiny, and the body its death. In the last analysis, it is our conception of death, which decides our answers to all the questions that life, puts to us.”
It’s true! We do have a certain view of what our destiny is, and our lives are lived with an understanding of that destiny. Be it that there is no life beyond the grave and hence, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die;” or there will be a final chesbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, and I will meet so and so in the afterlife; he or she knows what I am doing here now—he or she being my parents, my grandparents, my spouse, my siblings, whomever. There is no significant decision that is made in life—according to Dag Hammerskjold—that is not affected by how we view our ultimate destiny.
I once had a conversation I had with a very prominent Atlanta physician. He is not a member of our congregation, but we are friends and so he came to me when he was spiritually troubled. He’s an unusually compassionate doctor and personally goes often to the funerals of his patients who die. He told me that when he attends Christian funerals, he hears the minister speak of the entrance of the deceased into a new life in heaven. This he feels gives him a sense of comfort that there is some continuity to our souls. But when he goes to Jewish funerals, all he hears is how the deceased will be kept alive in our hearts. “Do we believe in life after death, or don’t we?” he asked.
I was once approached by a fairly knowledgeable non‑Jew who asked: “Did I read When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner? Is it true that Jews do not believe in an afterlife?” The reason she asked me is that this is not Kushner’s approach. He has other responses to the trials of life, but because he is a Reconstructionist Jew, he does not mention it.
My answer to my friend the doctor and to this non‑Jew was that we certainly do believe in an afterlife. So this non‑Jew then asked, “How come you don’t find any mention of it in the Bible?” The answer is that receiving a reward in the afterlife should not be one’s motive for doing good deeds in this world because it would diminish its significance. Besides, Judaism is a religion of life and so the Torah focuses on life, not death.
Despite the popularity of atheistic literature by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and the like, today we have a great deal of compelling evidence of life after life. We have on record tens of thousands of stories of people with near-death experiences who were pronounced clinically dead and then experienced hovering over their bodies and being drawn towards an intense light and finding deceased relatives greeting them and then they were told they had to go back. There are countless stories of people who had dreams from deceased relatives giving them crucial messages. And there are also so many stories about children and adults who had certain knowledge that could only have come from a previous lifetime—indicating that they have been reincarnated. All this makes it hard to dismiss the reality of life after life.
Judaism has always believed in life after life. But it does not believe, like other religions, that only a few get to enjoy that life while others are eternally punished. Judaism believes that the definition of death is when body and soul that were partners for a lifetime part. Kabbalah teaches that the soul remains close to the body until it is returned to its source—mother earth. Then the soul begins its ascent to Gd, returning to its source. How long does that take? From one moment for a righteous person up to a year for someone not so righteous. In the meantime, the soul goes through a cleansing process, ridding itself of the stains it acquired from its sins. When it finally finds its place with Gd it experiences eternal bliss—whatever that means.
Sometimes a soul will take on a task like watching over people that they loved in this world. Sometimes they’ll be engaged in heavenly tasks. Sometimes they’ll be reincarnated back to this world in order to have the opportunity to make a correction in their soul. Whatever happens after the cleansing process, it’s all sweetness and love.
It’s like the story of an elderly woman who asked her preacher to come to her home. Given her advanced age, she wanted to discuss her funeral arrangements. After describing the nature of the service she wanted, she told the pastor that during the viewing she wanted everyone to see her laid out in her best church dress with a fork in her hand.
“Why a fork?” asked the stunned preacher.
“Because of something that happened when I 1st joined the church. I attended the church supper on a Sunday, not really knowing a soul. I was seated next to a very nice gentleman who introduced me to some other folk at the table. After we finished the main course they came to collect our plates and silverware.”
“Hold on to your fork,” he told me.
“You’ll see, there’s something sweet still to come.”
“And sure enough, the servers came around with big, gooey, wonderfully sweet pieces of chocolate cake. Since then I always kept my fork at each church dinner. After I die my friends might be saddened by my demise thinking that this is really the end. The fork will show them that I believe that there is still sweetness to come.” (Rabbi Howard Addison Torah fax email 9/30/99)
Of all the ritual objects we use during this Sukkot season, we might not think of a fork as falling in the same category as the Lulav, Etrog and Sukkah. Yet, in many ways the dessert fork is a perfect symbol for this day and this Yizkor hour.
How many Jews rush out of shule after the shofar is blown at the end of Yom Kippur and never experience the sweetness of Sukkot? Or for that matter, how many of us here today will leave after this Yizkor and not come back for the sweet dancing of Simchat Torah tonight or tomorrow?
How many of us felt that all of life’s sweetness was gone when someone whose memory we’ll recall in a few moments 1st passed away? Or did we hold on to our fork so that we might again try to dig in to that which life has to offer.
When we recite Yizkor it is fitting for us to shed a tear for those who have gone before. But on this Shmini Atzeret, as we are about to leave the Holy Day season, it is equally fitting to recall the sweetness of their lives, to hold on to our “forks” so that we might share in that sweetness that is still to come. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis