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.
Comments are closed.
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!