Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Life Eternal: Yom Kippur Yizkor 5763 – 2002

ברוך אתה ה׳…מחיה המתים
Barukh Ata Adonai, Mehayei ha-metim
Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead

This statement from our prayerbook appears in the Amida, recited three times each day, five times on Yom Kippur.

Our prayer book (Mahzor Hadash) renders the blessing, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who confers immortality upon the departed” and “who grants immortality to the departed.” The old Silverman mahzor had “…who callest the dead to life everlasting.” The Rabbinical Assembly mahzor has “Praised are You, Lord, Master of life and death.”

Many years ago, the Reform Movement removed this line, or rather replaced it, with “Blessed are You…who gives life to all.” They did not believe in the “Resurrection of the Dead,” an idea that Maimonides had elevated to a “Principle of Faith.”

Like Maimonides, I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. I also believe in Gehinnom, and in the World to Come. This morning I would like to explain why I believe in Resurrection of the Dead, Gehinnom, and the World to Come.

First, though, we have to look around this room. There are many faces that are unhappy. There are many people who are crying, people weeping, some outwardly, some in their hearts. They are weeping for those who should be here but are not. They are weeping for those who have left this world, or those who are away, or away spiritually.

Will we be together in another world? What happens to us after this life? Will I see my child again, my mother, my beloved?

Now let us talk about Gehinnom. Gehinnom is most commonly translated into English as “Hell.”

Gehinnom is from the two Hebrew words גֵי־הִנּם. “Gei” means “valley.” “Hinnom” was a man’s name. Gei-Hinnom is the “Valley of Hinnom.” It a geographic location — it is a place on the map.

Gehinnom is mentioned in the Torah. One typical reference is from the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah:

And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of … Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart (7:31).

Gehinnom is the place where sweet little children were burned to death as an offering to an alien god.

Gehinnom is a valley in Israel.
Gehinnom is a battlefield to which fathers send their sons to die.
Gehinnom is a furnace in Poland.
Gehinnom is a bomb factory in Jenin.
Gehinnom is a madrasa in Mecca.
Gehinnom is a jetliner striking the 78th floor.

Intelligence correspondent Ehud Ya’ari wrote in the Jerusalem Report:

The power of Bin Ladenism lies in one concept: the voluntary surrender of all the comforts and delights of this world. The preachers of this doctrine come and persuade young Muslims all over the world that there is no cure for their despair, that there is no solution for their distress, hardship and feelings of frustration, and that therefore there is no point in seeking salvation on earth. On the contrary, they are told, they should use this abject life of misery to which the true believers have been doomed as a springboard to eternal life….

….Unlike any other political doctrine, Bin Ladenism explicitly promises its supporters that there will be no payback for their work until the day they die. All rewards are deferred until after the funeral. (23 September 2002 p. 15.)

It is not so far from us. The thousands of American teenagers and adults who commit suicide each year share a sense of hopelessness. The youth who killed their classmates and teachers were not so far from this way of thinking. They just haven’t been organized.

If we listen to the culture of death in some of the music of our day, we see that this is not so far from us.

Gehinnom is quite real. There are many, many human souls in Gehinnom. But it is certainly not where our loved ones go after they die.

I believe in Resurrection of the Dead.

The vision of the Resurrection of the Dead comes from the Prophecy of Ezekiel:

The hand of Adonai was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of Adonai, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,

And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

And Adonai said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?
And I answered, O Adonai Elohim, thou knowest.

Again Adonai said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of Adonai.

Thus saith Adonai Elohim unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am Adonai.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.

And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.

Then said Adonai unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith Adonai Elohim; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

So I prophesied as Adonai commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host.

The vision of Ezekiel is a most powerful image. Like other prophesies it is an allegory. It is perfectly clear from the context of the book of Ezekiel that this vision is meant as a prophecy of renewal for the people of Israel which had withered during its period of Exile. For those who missed the allegory, the Prophet explicates:

Then Adonai said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off from our parts.

Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith Adonai Elokim; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

And ye shall know that I am Adonai, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,

And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I Adonai have spoken it, and performed it, saith Adonai.

And indeed, the people of Israel, spiritually and physically as dry bones in Babylonian exile, were resurrected in Israel.

And indeed, the people of Israel, a pile of bones and ashes in Europe, were resurrected in Israel.

I believe this vision of national revival offers some hope for the souls of those killed.

So I believe in the Resurrection, but this is not what happens to our loved ones after they die.

There is another kind of Resurrection, not National Resurrection but personal Resurrection. There is another kind of bringing the dead back to life. That is part of what we doing during theseYamim Noraïm, the Days of Awe.

There are some people who are dead not in body but in spirit. The Talmud puts it this way: “The wicked are called dead even while alive; the righteous are alive even when they are dead” (Berakhot 18b).

When a wicked person is spiritually awakened by teshuva, repentance, and returns to the ways of the Torah, then that person is brought back to life. Through the saving power of Torah, God brings some people back to life. And I believe in that, too.

But those heavy hearts grieving for lost loved ones are not helped by knowing that a path to meaningful and decent life is open to all through teshuva.

I believe in the “World to Come.” In Hebrew the original expression is “העולם הבא — HaOlam HaBa.” Usually translated as “The World to Come,” a more direct translation might be “The Coming World.” The Coming World is the world we hope to create — a world of love, justice, caring, safety, happiness. The belief that there is the potential for progress in human civilization through the conscious efforts of humanity, is a fundamental principle of Jewish belief, one not shared by all of humanity. Someday, mahar, baShana haBa’a, someday in the future people will not die of cancer or heart disease, people will not betray friends and neighbors for money or lust, people will not kill others for their looks or their land. We won’t live in terror of anthrax or atomic bombs. I believe that someday there will be a Good World.

But those with heavy hearts are not helped by National revival or teshuva or faith in the future. The distance between our souls in this world and theirs in another is not bridged by these lovely thoughts, the pain is not taken away.

Last year, we were reminded in a big way — as if we needed another reminder — that our world is filled with senseless killing, and that our lives can end in a flash. This awareness may cause us, if we are wise, to keep in mind what is truly important in our lives. For me, that is love of my family and friends, building a synagogue community based on caring and worship, creating a civil society based on justice and love.

The Torah does not tell us exactly what happens to us after we die. It would seem a fundamental question, but it is just not part of the story. There is no universal Jewish doctrine on the afterlife. Our sages have their theories, but no one really knows.

Some believe in bodily resurrection, but most can’t believe that.

Some believe in a spiritual heaven where embodied souls float around on clouds.

Some believe in a physical Garden of Eden, another planet where we get a new body and enjoy paradise.

Some believe in a metaphysical world of ideas, a world of truth, a Platonic idea, a world in which the truth-which-is-Torah of which we partake is eternal and lasting and we become part of it and thereby eternal. I don’t know quite what it means, but some people believe it.

Some believe in reincarnation, either as people or as animals.

People believe a lot of things, but of course we don’t really know.

There are just certain things about our world that we are not destined to understand. “הנסתרת לה׳ אלקינו והנגלת לנו ולבנינו עד־עולם….The mysteries belong to Adonai our God, but the revealed things belong to us or our children for all time…” (Deut. 19:28).

We must admit, we don’t know what happens after we die because no one has died and lived to tell about it. None of us have ever been to that other world. Some have been very, very close, but none have been all the way to the other side and returned. But all of us were born, all of us were in that world, but none of us can exactly tell where we were or just how we got here.

When we sleep, our soul “departs” — where does it go? — and returns to us with the gentle singing of birds or the harsh blast of our alarm buzzer. Our consciousness returns instantly. Or for some, only after the first cup of coffee.

We are prisoners of the dimension of time. Our days are numbered. But now scientists and mathematicians understand that not everything is bound by time. Physicists believe that there are eleven dimensions in our universe — that the world around us can best be explained if we posit eleven dimensions. Most of us directly experience only three spacial dimensions and the dimension of time, but there are several more dimensions that we cannot experience, as the ant cannot realize the height of the mountain, or the goldfish understand the passage of time. Surely God is not bound by time. What could it mean for a human soul to be free of the bonds of time?

The mysteries belong to God. There are some things we are not going to understand. But that which is revealed belongs to us. God wants us to figure out how this world works before we begin to figure out what lies beyond.

Our souls are bound up with those of our loved ones. Why do we have such feelings about our ancestors? What is it that moves us? Why are we so connected to siblings, to parents — even if it is only a biological parent or ancestor whom we never met? Can we explain this intellectually or psychoanalytically? The connection between souls is of a nature that science can not fully explain to us.

About one thing our sages do agree, though, and that is that there is some eternal existence to our souls. We are not just pieces of meat walking around, but rather, holy creatures each in the image of God and special to God. There is far more to God’s world than what we can see.

The act of faith for us is not to accept some particular myth of life after death. Rather we are bid to accept on faith — without knowing how it works or just what happens — to accept on faith that God has given our lives — and our suffering — meaning in a larger context, that we have some real existence that is beyond the bounds of this world, that our souls in some way participate in the eternal.

ברוך אתה ה׳…מחיה המתים
Barukh Ata Adonai, Mehayei ha-metim
Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead

When we truly accept this faith, our lives will be changed. Eternally.

© Jon-Jay Tilsen 2002

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