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Life Beyond Death

I often find it difficult to explain Jewish beliefs concerning life-after-death to Jews and non-Jews. The problem is not that we don't believe in an afterlife. Throughout most of Jewish history, the belief in an afterlife has been prevalent among our people. The difficulty many people have is the fact that although our religious heritage presents us with an ancient, well-established, multi- faceted set of insights into the afterlife, these beliefs generally play a secondary or tertiary role in the structure of Jewish faith and the living of Jewish lives. From ancient times, our tradition, while accepting the hope of an afterlife, reminds us to center our attention on this world and find our hope in living and teaching a life built on the ethical and spiritual foundation of our Torah.

Thus, it is not surprising that our Bible teaches so little about what is to come. In the Bible, our oldest literature, the possibility of life-after-death is assumed rather than discussed at any length. Jews in the biblical period had an uncomplicated image of the afterlife. They often pictured the abode of the deceased, which they called "Sheol," as a drab, subterranean pit. In Sheol, the dead maintained a shade-like existence safely removed from the pleasures and pitfalls of earthly life. Accordingly, the Torah prohibits necromancy, the art of raising the spirits of the dead (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:11).

The story of the Wise Woman of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25) illustrates the seriousness of this prohibition. The evening before King Saul was to enter into battle with a formidable Philistine army, the king, in desperation, prevails on the Wise Woman to conjure up the spirit of the king's dead advisor, the prophet Samuel. The prophet, angered at being disturbed, accurately pronounces Saul's defeat and doom.

At the end of the biblical period of our history, we get the first glimpses of the elaborate descriptions of heaven and hell that appear in post-biblical Jewish literature and form the basis for similar beliefs in Christianity and Islam. Yet, the Jewish tradition held fast to the biblical focus on life in this world. The psalmist's powerful declaration that the dead do not praise God (Psalm 115:17) continued to ring true.

Rabbinic wisdom reminds us that it is improper and impious for us to serve God in the hope of receiving the reward of entering heaven (Avot 1:3). Living a life of good deeds based on our Torah, teaching its values to coming generations and building a community grounded on its ethical insights are sufficient reward in themselves.

For most Jews, our ultimate concern rests on the legacy we leave behind -- the people whose lives we touched and, hopefully, changed for the better -- and not our possible enjoyment of heavenly bliss. As the people of God, our task is to enhance God's sacred presence by working for the material and spiritual betterment of our world which, according to the Kaddish prayer, was fashioned according to God's will. In fact, one of the distinctive features of a Jewish funeral is that we seek to comfort the mourners not by the promise of paradise for their loved one, but by reminding them of his or her personal Torah, the ways in which the deceased drew on our traditions and values in order to transform his life and ours for the better.

Our desire to leave behind a meaningful spiritual legacy for our children has its roots in the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs. After the death of Sarah, Abraham cements his family's connection to the land God promised them by purchasing a family burial site, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Abraham's own funeral and that of his son, Isaac, provide opportunities for their families to heal the wounds caused by sibling rivalry and to work together for a better future.

The biblical account of Jacob's death in Egypt and burial in the Land of Israel also reflects this concern. In contrast to the Egyptians, among whom he lives, Jacob shows no interest in elaborate entombment rituals, which were designed to ensure the soul's safe passage to the next world. Rather than providing us a detailed description of the spirit's final journey, this week's Torah portion, Vayhi, shows the dying Jacob working to tie up the loose ends of his life. Jacob's concerns are to accept Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own, to provide parting words of instruction and insight to his children and to insist that he be interred in Machpelah, his family's burial cave (Genesis 48 and 49). To the end, Jacob was focused on the spiritual legacy by which he hoped to inspire those who were to follow after him.

His son, Joseph, seems to have taken his father's teachings to heart. In the dramatic conclusion of this week's Torah portion, the last of the Book of Genesis, Bereshit, we read about the death of Joseph (Genesis 50:22-26). With Joseph's passing, the period of the patriarchs comes to an end and we continue the story of our people in the following book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus, Shemot, with the birth of Moses and the promise of redemption from slavery. Surprisingly, Joseph, unlike his father, Jacob, does not demand immediate burial in Machpelah but rather instructs his children to allow his embalmed body to remain in Egypt until the day when his descendants shall begin the long journey home to the Land of Israel. Here, Joseph, too, holds fast to the Jewish commitment to continuity in this world. Unlike the Egyptians, Joseph does not see his future in a better world beyond our own. Rather, with a sense of prophetic hope for the Jewish people's eventual return to the Land of Israel, he offers his earthly remains as a constant reminder of our people's promised restoration.

The Jewish people have put forth many, varied views of the afterlife. As human beings, we cannot help trying to see beyond the grave. But even though our glimpses of eternity may differ over time and space, one insight remains constant: No matter what God holds for us in the world-to-come, our efforts need to be focused on making the world we have a better place for ourselves, our children and all creation. If we hold firmly to that insight, we will have little worry about the legacy we leave. That is our true reward.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah