Judaism, Death and the Afterlife

Judaism, Death and the Afterlife

I recently reflected on the death and burial, first, of Sarah Imanu, Sarah our mother and then of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. Two great figures of the narrative of Bereishiet, Genesis, our founding ancestors, dead in a single portion. This has me reflecting a bit on death.

There is a wide range of views of death and the afterlife that might be said to lie in the authentic scope of traditional Judaism. Everything from the vague description of Sheol in the Tanach, to ideas of resurrection, reward and punishment: the garden of Eden and Gehennah, even reincarnation, which is widely found in the mystical chasidic literature. There are theories so specific as to laying out exactly how long a soul hangs around the grave site before moving on.

Yet, even with all of the above, we really do not talk much about death in most congregations that I know of in the Jewish world. Perhaps it was because of the years of slavery in Egypt, with the preoccupation with building even grander tombs and stocking them with the things to make the afterlife more comfortable, but it seems to me that we have always shied away from putting too much energy into speculations on the world to come or worrying about it. Even when stories are told, they seem to be mostly intended to teach something else.

For instance, Rabbi Elimelech of Lyahansk said:

When I die and stand before the heavenly court they will ask me if I had been as just as I should have.
I will answer no.
Did I pray as I should have?
Again I will answer no.
Did I pray as much as I should have?
This time too, I will give the same answer.
The the Supreme Judge will smile and say, “Elimelch, you spoke the truth. For this alone you will have a share in the world to come.”

This story is about many things, but death is not really one of them. It speaks to the mercy of the Holy One, the importance of honesty, especially with one’s self, and is imbued with a trust that G-D understands his creatures and their limitations.

Unlike some of our neighbors, our goal is not salvation. It is to be faithful servants of our Creator, honorable partners in the work of creation, diligent repairers of a broken world, and appreciative beneficiaries of the beauties and pleasures of the life we have been given.

Yet there is death. We must respond to it in at least two areas. How do we deal with the death of those we love and how do we respond to the inevitability of our own deaths?

As for the former, Judaism, in its wisdom, has a systematic way of helping us through the first year of mourning for a loved one. We can learn about that sometime if there is interest. Yet, even now, after the year of mourning for my father is over, I find myself saying to myself, “Oh, I should send this to dad.” or “Dad would find this interesting, I should tell him about it when I call this week.” Only, in each case, to be brought up short in the recognition that this sort of sharing can no longer be. I no longer have my wise counselor and firm supporter. Yet in these moments, there is surely still a connection, though it is not one that can be measured in megabytes per minute. It is the link of heart to heart that somehow endures. I do not need to grab on to a theory of afterlife that can never be proven to know that in this connection there is an intimation of eternity.

More selfishly, perhaps, when my father died, I also had a sudden sense of being on deck and waiting my turn. After all, when my father was alive, that meant that I was still young and death a word that was not connected to me. That illusion of safety and self deception that I was separated from mortality is now gone.

As we each grow older, the understanding that we are mortal grows from stage to stage. Yet, we have a choice on how we deal with it. We can obsess. We can convince ourselves that we believe some fixed theory of death and afterlife, cling to it and so be comforted. Or we can just decide that it does not really matter. The world, for all of its evils and horrors, can be a beautiful place. There is always more we can do to improve the world, to improve ourselves, to help people and so many, many things to appreciate and enjoy.

We can choose to hold on to life with both hands. Revel in its joys, feel keenly its sorrows, and act in way consonant with the will of The Creator to repair what can be repaired and, when we can not fix a problem, comfort those who can not be helped. It seems a better choice than worrying all the time about what might be in the future and, thus, miss the feast before us. One never knows what might be for desert, if anything. Enjoy the main course.


From a sermon given by Seth F. Oppenheimer, student Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Starkville, MS.


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