The California Wild Fires
I woke up and tried to look out through my window.
All I could see was grey smoke and bright yellow fire – or was it orange?
The flames seemed to overwhelm the dark sky – it was blue, then turned grey then black.
What used to be a “fire season” has become the new “ordinary.”
My friends and family members have all left their homes, heading to safety.
I hear my parents calling – time to go, will I see my room again?
I was told to pack the most basic items – how do I decide what is ok to never see again?
The ground is so dry, the air is so thick, and the fires seem to grow and grow and grow…
We arrive in our temporary homes – are they really temporary?
I have seen the destruction caused by the fire…it is not possible for us to return.
How long we stay here depends on so many things – are the fires ever going to stop?
My eyes are dry, I cannot cry anymore…my throat is sore from the smoke.
There is a solution – I know this is true. Should we move East?
California is our home – I cannot fathom leaving this land. Should we stay?
We have had to move before…but not because of the fires.
Shall we just start all over again in a new place?
We are all Americans; We are all Californians; We are all humans.
Yom Kippur Day Sermon
I WISH YOU ENOUGH.
Recently, I overheard a mother and daughter in their last moments together at the airport as the daughter's departure had been announced. Standing near the security gate, they hugged, and the mother said:
"I love you and I wish you enough."
The daughter replied, "Mom, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Mom." They kissed and the daughter left.
The mother walked over to the window where I sat. Standing there, I could see she wanted and needed to cry.
I tried not to intrude on her privacy, but she welcomed me in by asking, "Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?"
"Yes, I have," I replied. "Forgive me for asking but why is this a forever good-bye?"
"I am old, and she lives so far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is the next trip back will be for my funeral," she said.
When you were saying good-bye, I heard you say, "I wish you enough." May I ask what that means?"
She began to smile. "That's a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone."
She paused a moment and looked up as if trying to remember it in detail and she smiled even more.
"When we said, 'I wish you enough' we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them".
Then turning to me, she shared the following, reciting it from memory,
"I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye."
She then began to cry and walked away.
They say it takes a minute to find a special person. An hour to appreciate them. A day to love them. And an entire life to forget them.
- Author Unknown
Today, I want to address an issue that may be in the forefront of many of our minds. One of my most cherished and holy responsibilities is being with families when a loved one is dying and then being there for and with them afterwards – from the last few moments of life through the funeral and every day after that. I have officiated at the funeral for children, young adults and even the most life experienced adults. Each time, as I sat down to reflect on the deceased to make sure I gave the proper respect to each of them, I concentrated as hard as I could on the positive. I have refused to consider the how and why of these deaths…for there is no WHY and there is no BECAUSE!
Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about life, dying and death. I have been reading, researching and preparing for the Death and Dying Symposium as well as my HHD sermons. This morning, I would like for us to focus on the family members and friends left grieving when a loved one dies.
One of the most important resources I purchased while at Hebrew Union College is Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.” Chapter 3 begins:
“Judaism, with its long history of dealing with the soul of man, its intimate knowledge of man’s strengths and foibles, his grandeur and his weakness, has wisely devised graduated periods during which the mourner may express his grief and release with planned regularity the built-up tensions caused by bereavement. The Jewish religion provides an exquisitely structured approach to mourning.”[i]
I have thought about, listened to, and researched the topic of mourning. There is not one right way to mourn. Yes, Judaism has a proscribed calendar of mourning. These periods of mourning contain various rituals and customs. Nevertheless, I do believe that every person mourns in their own individual way. As I sat down to think about what to write for this sermon, I decided to create a list of questions that I would want to focus on.
I believe that these questions focus on one of the key struggles for all of us right now is: what do we do after a loved one dies? Should we close ourselves off to the rest of the world? Or, should we reach out to those in our lives who are close to us? AND, what do we do or how do we act when those close to us are suffering because of the loss of a loved one? Our community and all Jewish communities throughout the world have spent a lot of time in the past couple of years in pain for a variety of reasons. It is vital, though, to stress that this sermon was guided by an extremely deep pain that I and so many others are feeling.
I do not purport to have all of the answers. What I can do is offer some of my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of scholars, teachers and others in our communities. One of the first sources I turned to was A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, edited by Yisrael N. Levitz, PH.D. And Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. In Chapter 10, Rabbi Maurice Lamm and Dodi Lee Lamm, MSW write, “…most grief reactions are normal, and most mourners will return to normal functioning. Grief reactions may exhibit all the symptoms of pathology yet be no more than a normal manifestation of mourning.”[ii] While each mourner reacts differently, it can be assumed that some sort of expressive emotions will appear. With the grief time periods that are standard in Judaism, some will return from their immense grief to normalcy even after the initial period of Shiva is over.
Perhaps you have heard of the Grieving Process. This theory, called the Kubler-Ross Model, was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. This process contains 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Rabbi Lamm and Dodi Lee Lamm continue, “The mourner may appear to have reached a stage of acceptance and everyone might breathe a sigh of relief only to see that anger sets in once again or even for the first time. Saying goodbye and accepting the loss is not a linear progression.”[iii] When comforting or supporting those that are mourning, we need to understand not only the stages of grief but also that one may go from stage to stage every day. It is most important for us to let them know they are supported, and we love them.
A few years ago, I was asked by a congregant how to speak to her children about a loss the family had experienced. I asked for advice from some of my more experienced colleagues. One of my colleagues suggested I turn to “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” a Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner by J. William Worden. First, let me share with you some of my thoughts: young children are not necessarily able to truly understand what “death” means, but that it is something that happens, just not to them.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Batya after the loss of a young person. When Carlie asked Batya what happened, Batya responded, “He died.” Carlie asked, “How?” Batya then responded, “He hurt himself.” Carlie’s response, “That wasn’t very smart,” showed her ability to understand the severity of what happened. Yet, I have wondered since then if our response to Carlie was appropriate. I do understand that every parent should come to their own conclusions regarding what they tell their children. But, when major events happen in our communities, should we not explain exactly what happened?
J. William Worden presents three views. The first view, expressed by Martha Wolfenstein in 1966, says “that children cannot mourn until there is a complete identity formation, which occurs at the end of adolescence, when the person is fully differentiated.”[iv] Another, different view, expressed by Erna Furman in 1974, says “that children can mourn as early as 3 years of age…”[v] Worden’s view however, suggests “that children do mourn and what is needed is a model of mourning that fits children rather than the imposition of an adult model on children.”[vi] We could look at study after study and I am sure that we would find even more conflicting results. What does this tell us? I believe it suggests that there is NO one right way of approaching these issues.
When catastrophes occur, organizations come together and make decisions about what to do next. Sometimes, unfortunately, though, the decision that is made is the “best of the worst.” Ultimately, communities have to bond together and work together to ensure everyone in their community can mourn or respond how they are most comfortable…and we should always be surrounded by those that love and care for us – that is a MUST!
“May his memory be for a blessing…” “As a result of the actions of her children, she will live on…” “Through their indelible imprints on our lives shall they always be present…”
These three quotes are some of the sayings shared at a funeral or in a house of mourning after the death of a loved one. As we can never really understand death, we attempt to explain that death only pertains to the physical body and that the soul lives on in the next steps of living. Every idea we have about the afterlife illustrates what we value most.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in “Basic Judaism,” illuminates the point:
Death cannot be and is not the end of life. Man transcends death in many altogether naturalistic fashions. He may be immortal biologically, through his children; in thought, through the survival of his memory; in influence, by virtue of the continuance of his personality as a force among those who come after him; and ideally, through his identification with the timeless things of the spirit.[vii]
So, we find ourselves in the same place we started. There is no one right way…but then again, what is clear is that we have to speak about the realities of life and death. Having these conversations, using words that will be easy to understand and in safe places, will enable each of us to cope however we are able and need. If we are not given the chance to mourn or cope, or, perhaps, the chance to learn how to mourn and cope, we might be causing more damage. Since I came to Temple Beth El, we have experienced some great moments as well as some difficult ones.
We ought to be able to celebrate our lives as well as support each other when needed.
Dear friends, this day has been and will continue to be long and difficult. Let us bask in the glory and sanctity of our community. Let us take some time to reflect and think about those in our lives who are of the most importance. Please, please, please embrace them, tell them you love them. And, most importantly, know that each and every one of you is of extreme importance in my life (and in the life of my family).
Gmar Chatimah Tovah and Tzom Kal!
[i] The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm, pg. 74
[ii] A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, Feldheim Publishers, pg. 165
[iii] Ibid, pg. 167
[iv] Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Springer Publishing Company, pg. 230
[v] Ibid. pg. 230
[vi] Ibid. pg. 231
[vii] Basic Judaism, Harcourt, Brace and World, pg. 160
Erev Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre Sermon
We find the following story in Greek Mythology:
Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse. Apollo gave his son a lyre and taught him how to play; Orpheus did to such perfection that even Apollo was surprised. It is said that nothing could resist to his music and melody, neither friends nor enemies or beasts.
Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice a woman of unique beauty; they got married and lived happily for many years. Hymen was called to bless the marriage and he predicted that their perfection was not meant to last for years.
At some time, soon after his omen, Eurydice was wandering in the forest with the Nymphs, when Aristaeus, a shepherd saw her and was beguiled by her beauty. He started chasing her and making advances on her. Eurydice got scared and tried to escape, but she was bitten by a snake and died.
Orpheus sang his grief with his lyre and managed to move everything living or not on the world; both humans and Gods were deeply touched by his sorrow and grief.
Apollo then advised his son to descend to the Hades and see his wife. Any other mortal would have died, but Orpheus protected by the Gods, went to the Hades and arrived at the infamous Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also managed to charm Cerberus, the known monster with the three heads. Orpheus presented himself in front of the God of the Underworld Hades and his wife Persephone.
Orpheus started playing for them and even the cold heart of Hades started melting, due to the melodies coming from Orpheus’ lyre. Hades told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice with him but under one condition; Eurydice would follow him while walking out to the light from the caves of the Underworld, but he should not look at her before coming out to the light because he would lose her forever. If Orpheus was patient enough, he would have Eurydice as a normal woman again on his side.
Orpheus was delighted; he thanked the Gods and left to ascend to the world. He was trying to hear Eurydice’s steps, but he could not hear anything, and he started believing that the Gods had fooled him. Of course, Eurydice was behind him, but as a shadow, waiting to come to light to become a full woman again. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost his faith and turned to see; he saw Eurydice behind him, but her shadow was whisked back among the dead. Eurydice was gone forever.
Orpheus tried to return to the Underworld, but a man cannot enter the Hades twice, not alive anyway.
Orpheus died (there are differing myths as to how) but the Muses decided to save his head and keep it among the living people to sing forever, enchanting everyone with the lovely melodies and tones.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the importance of our lives on earth and some of the various ideas regarding heaven in Judaism. I promised that we would look at Jewish ideas surrounding the concept of Hell. (SLOWLY) Why on Kol Nidre? Perhaps this is the right night because of the sheer magnitude of Kol Nidre. Tonight, we gather here at Temple Beth El to prepare ourselves for the most challenging day of our year. We stand, metaphorically speaking, in front of God, with as much humility as is possible. We are humbled by the heaviness of the Day and all that comes with it. We stand here vulnerable – hoping we have done enough…hoping we have prepared as well as we could have.
So, why did I start my Kol Nidre sermon with a story from Greek Mythology? Simply put – the Greek culture – Hellenism and religion – Greek Mythology – greatly affected and influenced Judaism in the last few centuries before the Common Era. And it is also true that Judaism influenced the Greeks as well. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one that contains great imagery and a glimpse into how religions and cultures influence each other over time. Simply looking at the word choices or translations from one language into another can be very insightful.
The first translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, was translated into Greek in the 3rd Century BCE. When translating the Hebrew word, Sheol, “Hades” was used. Hades was not only the God of the Underworld…it was synonymous with the Underworld itself. As I explained on Rosh Hashanah, Sheol in the Torah refers to a place where one goes down to after death. It is neither a heaven nor a hell…but just a place. It is how one dies/goes down that matters in the Bible.
If we look further into Greek Mythology, we can see some similarities between the concepts of Hades and Sheol. Hades, like Sheol is a place where the souls of those who have died “go” upon dying. The earliest iterations of Hades assumed that Hades was just the realm of the dead – portrayed as a passive realm ruled by a passive ruler, rather than an evil one. Hades had the responsibility of taking care of all of those in his underworld – and everyone was to be treated the same. However, as time moved forward, the concept of a darkness or darker world was incorporated into Hades, just as the idea of a sort of heaven entered Greek religious thought. Over time, the concepts of Elysium or Elysian fields, a paradise or heavenlike place, developed – a separation from the Realm of Hades.
Getting back to Sheol – the underworld that Jews went down to after dying - we can find references to one being “cut off from among his kin.” This punishment was reserved for the wicked, those who did not follow the commandments as proscribed in the Torah. What actually happened to those utterly wicked is debated throughout Jewish history.
Let’s first take a look at the word Hell. When I say Hell, what images come to mind? Do you see a red fiery devil with a pitchfork? Do you see a fiery pit where the souls of the wicked are burning for eternity? There is no Hebrew word for Hell. Jews do not believe in the concept of Hell. We do, however, have beliefs that are similar or comparable to Hell.
First appearing in the Book of Joshua, 15:8, a valley south of Jerusalem, Ge Ben Hinnom, describes the site of a heathen cult whose rituals included the burning of children. In the Book of 2 Kings and recounted again in Jeremiah, we find two Kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, whose religious practices are considered deplorable. In 2 Kings 16:2, we find this description of King Ahaz, “He even consigned his son to the fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations which the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites.” And, in 2 Kings 21:6, we find this description of King Manasseh, “And he burned his son as an offering…”
I am sure I am not the only one who believes that sacrificing children to a fiery altar is one of the most heinous crimes one could commit. As fire and torture are huge parts of the Hell concept, you can understand the connection. During the rabbinic period, this fiery pit or Gehennah/Gehinnom was “conceived of as a site of torment for the wicked after death…”
According to the rabbinic interpretation of Gehinnom, the average person descends to a place of punishment. One mystical view holds that every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction, or a demon. When we die, we are punished by the very demons that we created. The period of time spent in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then the soul ascends to take his place in Olam Ha-Ba. It is the utterly wicked, however, that do not ascend at the end of this 12-month period. Their souls are punished for the entire 12 months. What happens next is debated: some say that the soul of the wicked is utterly destroyed while others say the soul continues to exist in a state of remorse.
When I shared with you my personal views about the “waiting period” or “purgatory” that we all face when we die, I left out one important piece – during this purgatory, God is not present. We are forced to deal with our own insecurities or troubles alone. Personally, a place where God is not present would be the worst kind of hell I could imagine. For the Rabbis of the Rabbinic period, “Gehenna was seen primarily as a place of punishment and purgation.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 17a, we read, “Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body, and wrongdoers of the gentiles who sin with their body, go to Gehinnom and are punished there for twelve months. After twelve months their body is consumed, and their soul is burned, and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous.”
Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Jewish scholars and sages from the first and second century CE, taught that “the judgment of the wicked in Gehenna shall endure [only] twelve months.” After one year, everyone, even the wicked would be returned to paradise. Rabbi Akiva’s position held major sway on later ideas regarding purgatory or Gehenna.
When looking at the two compartments of the dead for the wicked, as described in the Book of Enoch, we find one idea that may sound foreign to Judaism: Bodily resurrection. “According to the dominant rabbinic view, physical resurrection of the dead would take place at the end of time after the arrival of the Messiah.” The rabbis believed that everyone is born and is destined to die; the dead are then destined to be brought to life again – or resurrected. Those that are resurrected will be judged after death…this being the Final Judgment. Of course, there is a dispute regarding the existence of a Final Judgment Day, since we already have a Judgment Day every year (Rosh Hashanah).
Earlier, I asked you to think about the concept of Hell. I described a fiery red devil with a pitchfork. This character has a name and is often found in movies, books, and in other media – Satan. There are other names for this little devil – Beelzebub, Diabolos, the Slanderer, Ba’al and others. So, where does this word, Satan, come from? If we turn to our Torah, we find references to satan (10 occurrences) and ha-Satan (13 occurrences). Without the definite article, “ha-,” in English, “the,” satan is translated as obstruct or oppose, as found in Numbers 22:22:
Va’y’char af Elohim ki holeich hu va’yeetyatzeiv Malach Adonai baderech l’satan lo v’hu rocheiv al atono u’shnei n’arav eemo,
“But God was incensed at his going; so, an angel of the Lord place himself in his way as an ADVERSARY/OBSTRUCTION. He was riding on his she-donkey, with his two servants alongside.”
With the definite article, Ha-Satan is traditionally translated as “the accuser” or “the adversary,” as we find in Job 1:6:
Vay’hee ha’yom va’yavo’u b’nei Ha-Elohim l’heetyatzeiv al-Adonai va’ya’vo gam ha’satan b’tocham
“One day the divine beings presented themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary came along with them.”
Of the 10 occurrences without the definite article, two are translated diabolos in the Septuagint and “Satan” in the King James Version. The other eight instances are traditionally translated as an adversary and refer to humans or angels. The 13 instances of Ha-Satan are found in two books of the Hebrew Bible – Job and Zechariah. As a human opponent, an evil seductive influence on humans, or as a heavenly persecutor, Satan is always a subordinate to the Power of God.
Perhaps you have heard of the “Yetzer hara,” the Evil inclination. Traditionalists and medieval Jewish philosophers rejected any belief in a rebel or fallen angel. Evil was more of an abstract – such as in the “Yetzer hara.” The “adversary angel” in the prologue of Job is viewed as a metaphor, not as an actual being.
One thing is certain – there are many ideas regarding Hell, the Underworld, Gehennah, the utterly wicked and Satan. In this evening’s sermon, I have presented many of the ideas – but of course there are more! It is possible that none of these ideas answer the questions you have regarding Hell and Judaism. Perhaps a conversation can now begin or continue.
On behalf of the entire Boxt family, I wish for every one of us in this room an easy and meaningful fast. May we all be written in the Book of Life and may each of us have a wonderful 5780. Good Yontif!oHowHowe
 Genesis 17:14; Exodus 31:14, et al.
 “What Happens After I Die,” by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme, pg. 26.
 Ibid, pg. 27
 Mishnah Eduyot 2:10
 “What Happens After I Die,” by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, pg. 29
Rosh Hashanah Sermon
A little levity on this heavy day:
A rabbi dies and goes up to the gates of heaven. Before he's let in, the angel in charge consults with God for a long time to determine if he deserves a place in heaven. As the Rabbi waits, an Israeli bus driver approaches the gates of heaven. Without a second thought, the angel consulting with God lets the bus driver through. The rabbi, points at the bus driver and yells, “Hey! How come he gets in so quickly?! He's a simple bus driver, while I'm a rabbi!” The angel explains, “Dear rabbi, when you gave sermons during services, your whole congregation fell asleep. When this bus driver drove toward Tel Aviv, all his passengers sat on the edge of their seats praying to God!”
In my sermon last night, we explored the significance of our life on earth: life as a vestibule to heaven…linking back to our sacred texts and beloved rabbis. We examined similarities between the Jewish concept of life and our brother/sister religions of Christianity and Islam. I mentioned there were various ideas regarding life. This applies also to the ideas surrounding the image: “Entering the gates of Heaven…”
Let me continue by simply answering the question (the elephant in the room) – Yes, there is a “heaven” in Judaism. Of course – it is not just that simple, but the very clear-cut answer is yes, Heaven does exist. This morning, we will dive into many of the concepts or ideas of a Jewish heaven. As always, my hope is that this is the beginning of conversations you will have with me and with each other. And, in case you were wondering, there is a “flip side,” a hell. We will discuss these ideas on Yom Kippur.
I have always thought it is important to share resources with others. The book, “What Happens After I Die,” is a fantastic resource regarding the ideas of life, death and the afterlife. In it, Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme “address a spectrum of Jewish responses to the question of life after death.” In this morning’s sermon, I will be presenting some of the ideas present in this volume. The earliest examples of a Jewish afterlife occur in the Torah, all the way back in Genesis. We find in our Biblical Texts 2 dominant ideas: 1) God is life-affirming and our focus in life should be to sanctify life and 2) Death does not mean the end of life, but a transition to a new kind of life in which one is gathered to their ancestors.
Very early on in Genesis, we find Adam and Eve, after being banished from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, being instructed by God, “By the sweat of your brow, shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground.” The old saying, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, reflects this. Basically, we have a finite number of days on earth, and when we die, we return to the Earth. You might find yourself asking – does that mean everyone goes to the same place? If we look at two Biblical characters who were very different, we may find an answer.
Genesis 25:8 teaches, “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” In other words, when a person dies, he is gathered to those who have already died. To say that Abraham was a righteous person would be, I believe, an understatement. So, therefore, when we read, he was gathered to his kin, we find the normal reward for a long life. And, most importantly, the Bible tells us that Abraham lived to a good old ripe age.
On the other hand, if we turn to Korach, we find a very different experience of death. In Numbers, Chapter 16, verses 28-33, we read:
“And Moses said, ‘By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord.’ Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”
In contrast to Abraham, Korach and his followers are sent down to earth – to Sheol – alive. In the passage I just read, there are a few things to unpack. Korach and his followers faced an untimely death in which the earth opened up and swallowed them alive. This was Divine punishment for their fight against Moses. It was normal for one to live a long life and then be gathered to their kin – as was the case with Abraham. However, Korach and his followers died – went down to Sheol – alive. Biblically speaking, Sheol refers to a place beneath the Earth, a place in which one always “goes down.” When one goes down to Sheol – they die. For Korach and his followers, though, they died early and were sent down to Sheol still technically alive. This was a tremendous punishment reserved for the most wicked.
The Book of Enoch, an Apocryphal book, a book written during Biblical times but not included in our Canon, describes Sheol differently. According to the Book of Enoch, Sheol is divided into four compartments for four types of the dead: the faithful saints who await resurrection in Paradise, the merely virtuous who await their reward, the wicked who await punishment, and the wicked who have already been punished and will not be resurrected on Judgement Day. Paradise is defined in Judaism as Gan Eden – not the same place where Adam and Eve were, but a place of spiritual perfection reserved for the most righteous. While there are various ideas regarding the merely virtuous, the one I agree with is one that suggests the reward for the virtuous will be like that of the righteous…just perhaps slightly delayed. I will discuss the wicked when I speak about the concept of Hell on Yom Kippur.
The concept of heaven or an afterlife also exists in our rabbinic texts and later Jewish texts as well. There is quite a bit of interesting and fantastic imagery in the Talmud. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, we find people sitting at golden banquet tables or sitting on stools of gold. Other examples of life in Heaven include enjoying lavish banquets or eternally celebrating the Sabbath. The rabbis of the Talmudic time also instructed that all Israel will have a share in Olam Ha-Ba, “the World to Come,” but there are some notable exceptions. In the Mishnah, we are taught: “All Israelites have a share in the world-to-come…[However], these are they that have no share in the world-to-come: one who says there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Torah, and that the Torah is not from Heaven, and an Epicurean.”
As the afterlife has always been a hot topic in Judaism, it makes sense that Maimonides, one of our greatest Jewish scholars and rabbis, had quite a bit to say. In his Mishneh Torah: Repentance 3:5, he agrees with the Rabbis of the Talmud while maintaining that the pious of all nations of the world have a portion in the world-to-come. Also, in his Mishneh Torah, we find: “In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies – like the ministering angels… The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”
I started this sermon with a joke regarding a rabbi who dies and goes to heaven – only to have to wait on judgement while an Israeli bus driver goes right in. While it is supposed to be humorous, there is a little bit of truth in the joke. After all, the joke challenges us to think about the different ideas/characters present. While I am aware that there may have been congregants who have fallen asleep during a few of my sermons, I hope that many of you have found some time to connect in at least one way to the words I teach.
Throughout this sermon, I have presented several different ideas from Jewish history that have helped to shape our current views on Heaven and the afterlife. Perhaps, you feel as many, many Jews feel – that the sheer amount of ideas just clouds or confuses us even more. The truth, I believe, is that there is very little in Judaism that is black and white. Sometimes all we can do is to think about what has been studied or presented in the past and then come to our own conclusions. With that in mind, let me share with you my own personal views regarding Heaven.
My ideas have been shaped and influenced by the many other ideas/concepts that are out there. Some of them I have shared with you this morning. And, yet, there is so much more. It seems that our scholars and rabbis of the past loved to argue and disagree with those that came before – even if they ultimately did agree. So, it makes sense, I guess that my own personal ideas of heaven seem to be inclusive of ideas from a variety of sources in our history. So, here goes – I believe that when a person dies, he or she meets with God directly. God then presents to them the truth. At that moment, that person is charged with accepting the truth. If he can accept the truth, he is allowed into Heaven – which is a place where he will find those who came before him.
If, however, he is unable to accept the truth presented to him, he will find himself in a kind of purgatory – a waiting place. The stay in this purgatory is based on the ability to eventually accept the truth (or not). As time is a creation of God, God is not bound by time. So, what may seem like a million years on earth could be a split second in Heaven. I do believe that all people will eventually make it to Heaven – but that timing is decided by God.
There is another elephant in the room. What if the truth presented is not in line with Judaism and our ideology? I was asked a couple of questions several years ago when I presented these ideas – What would you think, Rabbi, if you were wrong? How do you know if you are right? My answers to those questions – I believe with every ounce of my being that the truth God will present me is in line with what I have spent my life believing and my career teaching. I believe that faith is a matter of staying strong and living what you believe. I also believe that if you are a good person and you treat others with kindness, it will be easy and quick for you to accept whatever the truth is – even if it happens to not be exactly what you spent your life believing.
My dear Temple Beth El family, I hope that you have found something in the teachings I presented this morning to connect with. Perhaps you agree with the Biblical idea of being gathered to your kin as Abraham was. Perhaps you connect with one of the ideas presented by our Talmudic rabbis – studying Torah with Moses or sitting at a golden banquet table. Whatever you believe or connect with – may you take some time this High Holy Day Period to reflect and think. Find someone to have a conversation with (even if it is an argument) about how we live our lives on earth and what happens when we die. May each of you have a blessed and sweet new year. May each of us be written in the Book of Life. L’Shanah Tovah U’Metuka.
Kein Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will.
 Joke by Rabbi Molly G. Kane
 “What Happens After I Die,” Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, Introduction page ix.
 Genesis 3:19
 Babylonian Talmud Tractate Taanit 25a
 Babylonian Talmud Tractate Ketubot 77b
 Ibid Tractate Baba Batra 75a
 Ibid Tractate Berachot 57b
 Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1
 Mishneh Torah, “Repentance 8,” Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon.
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Death is a part of life; life is a part of death. It is not possible to attribute these words to one author. I suppose I could say, “My momma always told me….” Each of us has heard a variation of this quote in our lives at some point. Because, for all of us, at some point in our lives, we were face to face with death. Perhaps it was a grandparent or a friend. For some it was a parent…and for others it was a spouse. And, for others, it was the death of a beloved pet…a lifelong friend. What is true about all deaths is that we feel pain and sorrow. Even when the death of a loved one can be considered expected, the pain still is there.
An absolute truth is that death is a scary topic and one that no one really likes to talk about. Some people go out of their way to avoid the topic altogether. I have sat bedside with congregants who knew they were dying – and yet refused to admit it out loud. Often, though, it is the relatives who are watching their loved ones die who struggle the most with death – even after their loved ones have accepted that death was inevitable. Some that I have visited seem to be at peace with what is happening…they have accepted death as just the next step in their life’s journey.
Every year, as we prepare for the High Holy Day period, we are challenged to seek out forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. Do you think about those whom you have wronged unintentionally? What if there are people out there who are harboring frustrations or angst toward us because we just do not know we have done them wrong. And, yet, what about those whom we have lost before we had the chance to truly apologize? Should we carry the burden of pain or guilt when a loved one dies?
Of course, there is no real way to fix this problem as we cannot apologize for what we do not remember doing or if we never had the chance to make amends…this is certainly something to think about. Perhaps the message is to always seek to live your best life…to V’ahavtah L’reiacha Kamocha – “Love your neighbor as yourself…” However, that is a different sermon for another time.
During this High Holy Day period, I would like for us to explore themes that are very important and yet ones we often avoid. My sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will each focus on one aspect of death and the afterlife. My hope is that these sermons can begin conversations. It is not for us to fear what we do not know or understand. Rather, it is for us to discuss and perhaps even disagree about our own feelings and fears. Death is, after all, just one aspect of life – at least according to Jewish tradition.
Think about the following question for just a moment: What happens after I die? ***PAUSE***
There are, more than likely, some commonalities among your ideas. Perhaps you see an old man with a long beard on a golden throne among the clouds. Or, maybe you picture a vast emptiness. And, I am sure that some of you may not be able to see or think of anything. The truth is that there are many ideas and understandings within Judaism regarding the afterlife. Nevertheless, there is one truth that we all hold onto – we should be less concerned with what happens next and focus on our lives now. Our lives present for us many opportunities and decisions that will affect not only ourselves but anyone and everyone we encounter.
In other words – we should focus on how we live our lives on earth. While we do believe there is some sort of afterlife – and we will discuss those ideas later in the High Holy Days – what we are doing here on Earth in our physical bodies is what matters. One major difference between Judaism and other mono-theistic religions is the focus on life and the way we live our lives here on Earth. While there are varying ideas regarding heaven and hell in Judaism, one overwhelming truth in Judaism is our focus on life and being less concerned with what happens next.
Christianity, for example, teaches that through grace and being saved by Jesus, the reward is heaven. If one lives their life based on the model of Jesus, it can be assumed they will be good, righteous and treat others with kindness. Christians are challenged to live their lives as Jesus did – with the goal of getting to heaven. In Islam, the goal is also getting to heaven. The soul and body are completely separated at death. While the souls of sinners are extracted in the most painful way, the souls of the righteous are treated better. For both Islam and Christianity, the reward for living good lives or being saved is Heaven. You will find similar ideas in Judaism – just as you will find dissenting ideas as well.
I am not sure I remember the first time I heard the word vestibule. I am sure it was my father and he was referring to the hallway just in front of our front door. Dictionary.com defines vestibule as “a passage, hall, or antechamber between the outer door and the interior parts of a house or building,” in other words a sort of lobby. The vestibule is either the place where one goes to prepare to exit to the next room (or) the place one has just entered from a different place. In either situation, the vestibule is the place where one finds himself getting ready for what is next.
A vestibule? A lobby? An antechamber to the next room? Perhaps you have figured out where I am going. An idea that is a big part of Judaism and one we can trace back to our sacred texts is that life is a vestibule for death. All we must do is look to our sacred texts to find this idea. In Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of our Fathers,” from the Mishnah,
Chapter 4 vs. 16, we read:
רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה דּוֹמֶה לִפְרוֹזְדוֹר בִּפְנֵי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ בַפְּרוֹזְדוֹר, כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּכָּנֵס לַטְּרַקְלִין
Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the banquet-hall.
Rabbi Ya’akov ben Korshai, a rabbi who lived in the 2nd century CE, was a teacher of Yehudah Ha-Nasi and a disciple of Rabbi Meir. He believed that we must prepare ourselves in life – the vestibule – so we may enter the banquet-hall – Heaven/Afterlife. Both Rashi and Maimonides taught that the Hebrew word teraklin (a word borrowed from Greek) referred to the court of the King - we prepare ourselves by living good lives so we can find ourselves in front of God in the afterlife.
Named one of the 50 most influential Jews of 2016, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz published “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary” in 2018. His commentary on earth as a vestibule to heaven agrees with Rashi and Maimonides:
One can hardly wait to get to the fancy reception, but before one can enter, there is a wait. The wait can be frustrating, testing the limits of one’s patience. But then, you’re allowed in, greeted with loving arms and warm light. In this mishnah, Rabbi Yaakov suggests that we have one opportunity to do mitzvot and beautify our souls. This will shape eternal destiny. Whether we fully embrace this theological model, we should be inspired by its urgency.
This seems to suggest something very similar to our mono-theistic brother and sister religions – we should do good deeds on earth to “get to the next place.” So, if our goal is Heaven – what is different about our understanding of life? Rabbi Shmuly continues, “Another, more subversive, way of understanding ‘the world-to-come’ is by seeing it as this very world that we are yet to build.”
In this view, our current world is broken and needs to be repaired. Perhaps you have heard the term Tikkun Olam? This phrase has become a sort of battle cry for the Reform Movement. Tikkun Olam literally means repairing of the world. This idea of tikkun is an old idea that goes back to the beginning of our peoplehood. However, the Kabbalists used this idea to help to explain human’s role in creation.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, considered to be the father of contemporary Kabbalah, described two stages of Existence in his teachings. The initial world created by God was called Olam, which referred to the tohu va’vohu or chaos we find in the beginning of the Torah. This world is to be replaced by the world of Tikkun, which is a world of rectification or a fixed world. Tikkun also describes the active spiritual work that we are responsible for in our partnership with God in creation.
According to Kabbalah, during the time of Tohu, there was a shattering of vessels – Shevirat HaKeilim, which included the origination of evil and the concept of free will. The role of humankind in creation is to find these Nitzuzot Kodesh, the sparks of holiness that remain exiled in the world and bring them back together – in rectification or fixing of the world. How do we do this? It is through our actions on earth, the way we treat others and how we follow the mitzvot that fulfills our role in the partnership of creation.
In his Introduction to the Zohar, Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag wrote, “A person, the moment he or she is born, has a soul of holiness. But this is not a realized soul. It is, rather, an inactive soul, or a soul in potential; the least aspect of the soul. Since it is small, this aspect of soul is considered as a point, which is enclothed within a person’s heart, that is to say, it is enclothed within his or her will to receive, which reveals itself chiefly through the heart.”
If we break down this one paragraph of Kabbalistic thought, we find reasons why our lives on earth are so important – and reasons why the Union for Reform Judaism has charged its members with making sure Tikkun Olam is always on the forefront of their minds. When we are born, our souls are holy. However, our souls are not complete or realized; as an inactive soul or a soul in potential, there is work for us to do. Our will to receive is expressed in two ways – via the mind and via the heart. Via the mind – this means through our desires to learn and understand why we do what we do; in other words, why do we perform the mitzvot? Via the heart – this means through our desires to feel and sense pleasure in doing the work/mitzvot and in the world around us.
However, it is not just about doing the mitzvot. As we try to understand what we do, why we do it, and enjoy the pleasures of life on earth (drinking, sleep, eating, money, intelligence, etc.), we still have the goal of tikkun – “rectification.” And, as our will to receive is expressed in two ways, the two modes of rectification are as well – a) for the mind, through the work of faith, and b) for the heart, the work of serving God and our fellow – without receiving reward. We do because it is right and what we need to do as part of our partnership with God in creation.
Earlier in my sermon I mentioned our life on earth as the vestibule to heaven. What I have tried to demonstrate in this sermon is that the Jewish views on our life on earth are varied – just like everything else in Judaism. We all believe in Adonai – the one God. However, there are so many other ideas and categories in the Jewish world that give us the opportunity to learn, explore and decide. The Jewish views of the afterlife – heaven and hell – which we will dive into during the rest of the High Holy Day sermons are also multi-faceted. Whether you believe we are responsible for doing good on earth for the reward of Heaven or because it is our portion of the partnership with God in creation, we can all agree that doing gimilut chasadim, “Acts of lovingkindness,” and mitzvot is a part of our identities as Jews.
May each of us find a hidden spark within us to illuminate the road head. May we learn to work together with each other and God in the act of creating – Tikkun Olam, the finished world we all hope to find. May this world be one with peace, friendship, love and goodness. And, on Rosh Hashanah and throughout the High Holy Day Season, may we be challenged to live by example for our children. L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu – May each of us have a sweet, restful and blessed New Year.
 Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, pg. 252
 Ibid, pg. 253
 Introduction to the Zohar, Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag, #43.
 “Lesson Thirteen,” A Tapestry for the Soul: The Introduction to the Zohar by Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag, Compiled by Yedidah Cohen.
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