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
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