Our “After” Lives
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782/2021
Of all the questions that are put to a rabbi, there’s one that we’re asked just as often by fellow Jews as by people of other faiths. Can you guess what it is? It’s “What does Judaism say about… the afterlife?” What’s our position?
I usually reply that the Torah makes only vague reference to where we go after death, and that the idea of an olam haba—a world to come after this one—only materialises later, in the era of the rabbinic sages. These sages, preaching and teaching in the first centuries of the Common Era, were asked by Jews and challenged by others: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why are the seemingly wicked people of the world rewarded? God told us in the Book of Deuteronomy to do what is right and good and not to stray from the commandments of the Torah, so why weren’t those who did that living in freedom and prosperity? they wondered. Why did those who sent us into exile and taxed and oppressed us get to rule the land? That’s not what we Jews were promised! To this, the rabbis offered reassurance, responding that the reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked would come in the nextworld, the world to come.
Later in Jewish thought we see differing views on the natureof that world to come—what it would be like there. Some argued that it will be just like this world, but governed by a just and compassionate Jewish ruler. Others believed that, no, it won’t be like this world at all; the whole of reality will be transformed and we’ll each be like the blissed out psalmist whose words we chant throughout the month of Elul:Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai, la’chazot b’noam Adonai, ul’vaker b’heichalo—“I will sit in the House of Adonai all my days, gazing upon the pleasantness of God, and frequenting God’s Holy palace.” But beyond these few visions, by and large, Jews don’t tend to speculate much about life after death, other than to note at funerals that the soul will return to the One who gave it, and to pray that El Maleh Rachamim—the God of Compassion—will look after that soul for eternity. There are references to resurrection in our texts and liturgy, but this isn’t something we dwell on (so to speak), especially in light of our intense focus in Judaism on how to live, here in thisworld. Volumes upon volumes of Jewish texts have been written about how to behave in this life, here on earth, in the presence of our fellow terrestrials.
Because I’m often asked what happens after death, and because Judaism likes to be vague about the answer, I was particularly drawn a few years ago to a bestselling book by Jewish neuroscientist David Eagleman, in which the author speculates playfully on what the afterlife couldlook like. Eagleman paints 40 possible scenarios. In the first scenario, each of us lives in the afterlife the same lifewe’ve actually lived, but with all the likemoments grouped together, rather than in the order they actually happened when we were alive. So, for instance, we spend two full years being bored, but then we never have to be bored again. “You take all your [physical] pain at once,” he writes, “all twenty-seven intense hours of it… Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant.” We spend six weeks waiting for a green light, three months doing laundry, fifty-one days deciding what to wear, nine days pretending you know what is being talked about, eighteen days staring into the refrigerator, six months watching commercials, and four minutes wondering what life would be like if we reshuffled the order of events. In reading his description, however theoretical, it quickly becomes clear what a blessing it is to live an interspersed life, where good alternates frequently with bad, despair with hope, hurting with healing. Importantly, this scenario also elucidates what we should be spending more, and maybe less, time on in thislife.
In a second scenario, the afterlife would be just like this life, but made up of only those people you knew during your lifetime on earth. This seems blissful at first, as you have plenty of time to catch up with old friends and reunite with family members who predeceased you. But very soon, in this version of the afterlife, you come to realise you didn’t really know anyone who worked, say, in a car tire factory, or anyone who knew how to make a computer chip, or who had experience laying railroad tracks. By the end of this scenario, we come to realise how very dependent we are on having a society, and people in our lives who live very differentlives from our own. Again we contemplate, are we living the way we should—appreciating who we should—in this life?
In a third scenario, we get to choose what sort of creature we want to be in our next life, and many with particularly hard lives opt for the simpler life of an animal. Eagleman describes, for instance, one who upon his death elects to become a horse. He says: “You covet the bliss of that simple life: afternoons of grazing in grassy fields… You announce your decision… and your body begins to metamorphose… Your concern about human affairs begins to slip away.” But then suddenly, mid-transformation, as your brain morphs from human to equine, Eagleman says, you become “aware of the problem you overlooked”—that your choice is irreversible, because a horse upon its death would likely not long to be a human, if it could imagine such a transformation at all with its simpler brain. Eagleman describes the frightening final moment of your transformation: “Just before you lose your final human faculties, you painfully ponder what magnificent extra-terrestrial creature, enthralled with the idea of finding a simpler life, chose in the last round to become a human.”[i]
Eagleman’s book may be playful, but his point is dead serious (pardon the pun). No one knows what the next world will bring, so contemplate how you live in the here and now, from your longings to your acquaintances, to how you spend your time. Are we living as we should? Now’s the time to consider this, before it’s too late to make a change.
In the author’s creative genius, he prods the reader with a glimpse into another realm. But it shouldn’t take a Jewish neuroscientist to sober us into action. Not after the year that’s just passed. This past year, in the face of over four million fatalities from Covid-19 around the world, many surely will have contemplated what comes after death. What I hope we’ve also contemplated is how we live in thisworld—and what changes we need to make to live better. Since the pandemic came into our lives, we’ve confronted our own mortality like never before. And in the face of it, we’ve washed our hands, we’ve restrained our hands from touching others, and we’ve had time on our hands. Where has it all left us? How will we use our hands when it’s safe to reach out to one another again, or to engage in our livelihoods again? Who and what do we now appreciate differently, and will we remember to appreciate them as we move forward? When our freedom returns, what should we spend more time on, and less?
Those in our congregation who’ve been following the development of our NSTE ‘This I Believe’ program will attest to my obsession with the idea of a “considered” life. Back in the 1950s, radio producer Edward R. Murrow asked a mix of famous and ordinary citizens alike to each compose and record for his show a 5 minute essay about what their personal life experience had taught them about how to live well. Each day listeners heard a different essay—one by Albert Einstein, another by Helen Keller, the next by a teenager sharing a poignant insight… The show was so popular that it inspired another series in the 1990s and over 100,000 people—adults and schoolchildren alike—to submit their own essays, all housed on a searchable database. Those who attended our Shavuot program earlier this year listened together to pieces by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Oscar Hammerstein, and others less famous whose words nonetheless ignited a profound conversation over what matters most in life and where our individual priorities lie. Everyone in our community is invited to contribute a This I Believe essay to our Temple compilation, and we’re now running workshops to guide and stimulate the process of writing them. I can think of no better time to embark on this endeavour than after what we’ve all been through during the Covid pandemic. I’m infinitely curious whether you’re emerging from this period with all new convictions or renewed faith in your old ones, and what those are. Not high-minded theological convictions—but simply what guiding principles you live by. What will change and what will stay the same, as we move forward from this pivotal moment in history? How will youlive a considered life?
Of course, I’m not the only one who’s been obsessed with this question since Covid hit. Dr. Betsy Stone, a psychologist who teaches at our seminary in New York, says researchers have been studying what’s known as PTG—Post Traumatic Growth—specifically, how people grow from crisis spiritually, creatively, and relationally, especially after confronting our mortality. She urges us to examine what we’ve each learnt about ourselves during the Covid crisis—for better or worse—that can help us build our “next normal.” What have we learnt about ourselves, our vulnerabilities and strengths, our habits good and bad, what matters most to us, and what matters least? She writes: “How can we scaffold the learning as we reemerge, for ourselves and for those we care for? Our emergence requires intentionality and thought.”[ii]
The current moment presents us with a unique opportunity, brought about by a rare, up-close encounter with our mortality and an abundance of time to reflect on how we live. The Covid threat has made this a moment ripe for making a change. But Judaism holds that we needn’t wait for such a rare moment—nor such a real threat. Every year at this season, we’re given the opportunity to imagine,like Eagleman did, the point of no return—and to take action before it’s too late. Our tradition understands the High Holy Days as the rehearsal for our death. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. On Kol Nidre, the aron—the holy ark, but also the Hebrew word for casket—is emptied of its Torah scrolls, making room forus. On Yom Kippur we dress in white like the shrouds we’ll be buried in; and at N’ilah we recite the vidui(a confession) and the Shema,as we will on our deathbed. Our pulse slows as the fast wears on. We ponder a litany of possible fates: who shall perish by water, and who by fire? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by famine and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Imagine it!says our tradition. But the point of imagining it isn’t to make us obsessed with how we’ll die; it’s to make us consider how we live. The “alphabet of woe,” listing our failures letter by letter—from “Arrogance” to “Zeal for bad causes”—prompts us to contemplate how we might compose a better life; using the same letters to live different words, and to build a different world. And the good news is, it’s not too late, because this is only a rehearsal! The liturgy is just liturgy! A drama, and not the real thing, thank God. The rehearsal for our death can become a rebirth, if we treat it as one.
Theologian and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, was once asked in an interview what his advice would be to the youth of his day. He said, “to build your life as if it were a work of art.” Let’s figure out what that looks like, whether talking together in a This I Believe workshop, privately composing our own essays, or simply taking some time each day to consider what a considered life might look like. We’re not living an afterlife, but perhaps we’ve all been given a rebirth. A reset. Clean hands with which to craft our work of art. There’s no better time. During the first pandemic lockdown, Israeli artist Hanan Ben-Ari recorded a poignant, prayerful song about the whole world’s sudden encounter with our mortality. Before Corona, he sings, “we built towers to the sky… [we thought] we’re smart, we know it all. And then you came along, and infected us…and confined us, and confused us, and terrified us… Soon this will all be over,” he sings, “and I ask if it could be, that the dawn after you leave us, lo nihyeh shuv oto hadavar—let us not return to the same we were before.”[iii] Our ‘next normal’ awaits, at the dawn of thisnew year.
[i]David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.