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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