Shaarei Shamayim

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Today’s Torah reading deals primarily with the last moments of Father Jacob and his death. Dag Hammerskjold, former UN Secretary-General once said: 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.

I thought this Shabbat would be a good time to introduce you to a new book from my mentor and teacher Rabbi Benjamin Blech: Hope, Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death. It contains many of his teachings I have shared with you over the years with some new exquisite insights.    

On some level of awareness we all know that our days are numbered. How to cope with that recognition is perhaps our greatest challenge. For some, acknowledging mortality is liberating like in Chris Allen’s hit song “Live Like We’re Dying.” For others, fear of the unknown is debilitating and cause for depression.

Judaism, by way of profound insights from the Torah and Kabbalah grants us some amazing answers to what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey. Rabbi Blech, in an article for about his book, shares with us 5 surprising ideas about death from Jewish wisdom:

  1. Death is not the end of our existence. Adam was formed from the dust of the earth as well as from the breath of Gd’s spirit. We are a combination of body and soul. It is the soul which defines us as being created “in the image of Gd.” It is the soul that is eternal and represents our essence. King Solomon sums it up best (Ecclesiastes 12:7): “And the dust [the body which is formed from the dust] returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to Gd who gave it.” And so to those who ask: “Does Judaism believe in life after death?” The answer is a resounding yes!
  2.  At the moment of death we get a glimpse of Gd. When Moses asked Gd, “Show me please your glory” (Ex. 33:18-20), Gd responded, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” The implication is powerful. While the living cannot see Gd, death comes with a vision of Gd. That’s the reason behind the custom of closing the eyes of the dead. Eyes which have perceived the glory of heaven dare no longer be exposed to the harsh reality of this world.

I have more than once been present at the very moment when someone died. Often it appeared that the dying suddenly saw a beautiful and comforting vision. Mona Simpson—Steve Jobs’ sister—in her eulogy reported: Steve’s final words were monosyllables, repeated 3 times. Before embarking, he looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurine, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

What he saw apparently overwhelmed him with its beauty. He could only respond to it with a 3-times repeated exclamation of amazement. Jewish tradition assures us we too, at the moment of death, will have this kind of revelation.

3.  The dead know what is happening around them. Jewish sources tell us what happens to us immediately after death. In Pirke Avot (4:21) Rabbi Yaakov teaches: This world is like a hallway before the world to come. Fix yourself in the hallway so that you may enter the drawing room. The analogy of a hallway is striking. A hallway is but the entrance to the main domicile. In other words, our lives on earth are only the 1st stage of a more glorious existence.

Rabbi Yaakov (4:22) continues: One hour of pleasure in the world to come is better than all the time in this world. Here on earth we seek happiness, but our pleasures are transitory—our joy is limited by our physical being. Once we pass through the hallway of our lives and arrive in heaven we notice that our earthly “hallway” pales in comparison, and that true meaning of happiness transcends all that we experienced during our lifetimes.

Jewish law takes it a step further. Because our soul—our real self—moves from one domain to another, we leave this world slowly—forsaking our bodies in stages. That’s why the dead should never be left alone—because the soul hovers near the body shortly after its initial separation and it is aware of the love and respect shown to its vessel, the body. And so those tending the deceased are not permitted to eat or learn Torah in their presence because it would be “mocking” the dead by doing something they can no longer do. Why? because they would know it! And we must be careful of what we say in their presence because they can still “hear it.” And so Judaism emphasizes that eulogies require special care with their remarks—not just because inappropriate statements and untrue observations might offend friends or family—but because one of the listeners is none other than the deceased as well! 

  1. Dying means remembering, reflecting—and facing final judgment. The Talmud (Avot 3:1) teaches: Akavia ben Mahalalel says: “Pay careful attention to 3 things and you will not come to sin: know from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a final account and a reckoning.”

More fascinating is that the Talmud (Shabbat, 31a) actually reveals the questions we will all be asked in our “final exam” in heaven. Questions like:

Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?

Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?

Did you ensure continuity of the world by having children?

Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?

So not only do we know that “one hour of pleasure in the world to come is better than all the time in this world,” but we are also told what’s required of us in order to get there. What a remarkable and kind gift it is to have the questions of our final exam in advance. And what great advice for living a life of fulfillment which finds favor in the eyes of Gd and our fellow human beings. 

  1. The real reason to cry about death. Why then do people cry when they’re dying? Why cry if we believe we are moving to a better location? And so it is recorded in the Talmud that Rabbi Yehuda explained to his students on his deathbed. “If you want to know why I am crying, it is only because of the Torah and the meritorious deeds that I will no longer be able to perform.”

Death deprives us of the ability to continue to serve Gd and do acts of kindness. The lesson is that it is life that presents us with opportunities for personal growth and the elevation of our souls. Death brings to a close our ability to achieve our potential.

There’s an old story about a businessman who dies and goes up to that line that decides whether he gets into heaven or not. In front of him he sees a man being asked to tell about the good deed he has done. After he finishes, the angel in charge tells him to proceed through the gates into heaven.

          When it’s the businessman’s turn, he clears his throat and says that he didn’t have time for good deeds, and hasn’t given much to charity. He then takes out his check book and says, “Just tell me how much it’ll cost and I’ll write you a check.”

          The angel says to him, “Checks? We don’t take checks in heaven. We only take receipts!” In heaven they take receipts. It’s not a joke. It’s true. 

Rabbi Blech concludes: “These are some of the profound insights which can replace fear with hope as we contemplate the reality we know is the eventual fate of all mankind.” I hope you will buy and read Rabbi Blech’s new book, Hope Not Fear. Keep it close and refer to it often. It’s not a long book and it’s an easy read. And it is worth the effort because it can transform your life. Amen!

 Click here to purchase Rabbi Blech’s new book, Hope Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death.

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