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The Journey of the Soul

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Sixteen years ago, in May of 2003, I was teaching the second session of a class on Death and Dying in Jewish tradition.  I got a message after the class that Gina, my spouse, was trying to reach me, and she had asked me to come right home after the class.  When I got home, she told me that my father, Bill, was gone; he had died suddenly of a heart attack a few hours before.  He was 64.

I was totally in shock.  Although he’d had a previous heart attack when he was 40, my father had been healthy since then - he’d stopped smoking, he ate better, he led a much less stressful life.  In fact, he’d gone fishing the day before he died; we have a beautiful picture of him holding up a big fish he’d just caught, on his friend’s boat.  And then, the next day, he was out biking with one of his oldest friends, and when they took a short break and were sitting on a bench, he suffered the heart attack, and died almost instantaneously.

I had lived through the death of all my grandparents before that day, and I’d done my share of funerals as a rabbi.  But my father’s death introduced me to the world of intense mourning, and to the shock of assimilating what felt like an ending that had come far too soon.

I had counseled many others in the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions before my dad died, but I came to more fully appreciate those practices now that I was a primary mourner.  The intensity of the funeral and burial; having community around during the week of shivah; marking the 30th day after the burial, the sheloshim, with a group of friends; going to daily minyan for a number of months to say Kaddish, and saying Kaddish as often as possible after that, for 11 months: all of these rituals created a container to hold my grief. They were also a signal that I was indeed in mourning, a sign both to myself and to others, that this was a process, and it was neither quick nor easy.

There were a number of other lessons that I gleaned from my father’s death.  My parents didn’t own burial plots, and so the day after her husband dropped dead, my mother had to go out shopping for somewhere to bury him.  Lesson number one, for anyone over 50:  while hopefully it doesn’t happen for a long time, make arrangements.

I learned a lot about the process of grieving. While we overall had a good relationship, my dad was an intense, complicated person. After he died, I felt deeply thankful that I had made the effort to work on some things with him, with the help of a therapist, while he was alive.  When he died, I was not left with a feeling of unfinished business. It made my mourning no less sad, but certainly less complicated.

I also learned that often, when we mourn - especially mourning a parent - we are not just mourning the loss of a person, the loss of what they gave us. We are also mourning other losses, those things that they were never able to give us.  It’s important to feel permission to mourn all of it, and to acknowledge how complex grief can be. 

I am talking about my father’s death with you today because we don’t really talk about death enough.  Well, not exactly.  On one level, our culture is saturated with death. Our television shows and movies are awash in violence and death.  The news is obsessed with violence and death. The American worship of guns is almost a cult of death. And what’s with all the zombies?

But at the same time, American culture has very little idea how to deal with actual death.  People in mourning are supposed to “get over it” in a few days or weeks, as if they’ve stubbed their toe.  People in mourning apologize for crying, as if one person’s sadness is a cause for discomfort in others.  So many people have no idea how to support those who are in mourning, and even less of an idea of how to think about their own dying.  This combination of unhealthy obsession and almost total lack of awareness is profoundly debilitating.  It means that most of us are not prepared for death - either our own, or that of our loved ones.  We are strangely alienated from the simple fact of human mortality. And this alienation impinges greatly on how we live.

This past winter, I took a wonderful webinar with Dr. Simcha Raphael, the spouse of a Reconstructionist rabbi, who has spent his career as a psychologist researching and putting into practice Jewish wisdom about death and the afterlife.  He has written the definitive book on the topic, Jewish Views of the Afterlife.[i]  I’d like to share with you some of Simcha’s insights this morning, as we prepare to go into the Yizkor service, and I will be offering a more in-depth class on the topic beginning later this month.

Simcha begins by noting that most American Jews assume that Judaism actually has little or nothing to say about the afterlife. We are the inheritors of a rationalist Judaism that downplays or even dismisses traditional Jewish beliefs about life after death. We also tend to assume that ideas about heaven and hell are inherently Christian, and therefore alien to Judaism.

It is true that Judaism tends to emphasize our life in this world - olam hazeh - and puts somewhat less emphasis on olam habah, the world to come.  There is no real Jewish dogma about the afterlife.  But we do have over two thousand years of teachings and traditions about what happens to the soul as it goes through the dying process and beyond.  What I have learned from Simcha is that the wisdom in those teachings can help us live our lives here, and help us mourn our losses as well.

Simcha notes that to explore questions of the afterlife begs the question, “what does it mean to be alive?”  That is, what is a human being?  There is one response - we could call it the materialist answer - that says that human beings are reducible to our physical parts, and that human consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of neurons firing in our brain.  We are literally the sum of our physical parts, and nothing more.  So when the blood stops pumping, when the neurons stop firing, we stop existing, and that’s it.  Dead is dead.

But the truth is that we don’t actually know what makes us human, and where our consciousness, our inner awareness, comes from. Similarly, we have no idea what happens after we die.  There are many people who have had near death experiences who attest to a variety of phenomena, but none of us can really know. 

My own sense, having spent time with both living human beings and those who have recently died, is that there is something - an energy - that animates each of us.  We can call it a soul, a spirit, chi, life-energy - whatever you would like.  And once a person has died, it is very apparent that that energy no longer inhabits the body. But the laws of physics teach us that energy never disappears.  So whatever that life force is, it has to go somewhere.  And we can only grasp that “somewhere” through metaphors, through symbols.  This is how I approach the richness of Jewish tradition about what happens to the soul after death. So, with your permission, here is a short travelogue about the journey of the soul, and how it relates to the process of mourning for those of us left behind.

Jewish tradition suggests that the moment of death itself is peaceful and painless; in the Talmud, the rabbis speak of it being like “taking a hair out of milk” – simple and smooth. Many religions speak of different kinds of visions that a dying person might have, and in Jewish tradition these tend to take two forms: a vision of light, often described as Shechina - God’s feminine Presence; or a visitation by deceased relatives. 

The experience described here is one of accompaniment - of ancestors or heavenly beings escorting the soul out of the body, and into the next phase of its journey. Some of you may have had the experience of being present with someone near the end of their life, and hearing them speak of having had a visit from a parent, or another deceased relative.  In medical terms, this can sometimes be considered psychosis; in Jewish spiritual terms, it is a beautiful moment of being welcomed over into another realm.

Another Jewish tradition is that, at the moment of dying, a person receives a kind of accounting of their whole life, a review of their actions.  According to the Talmud, “even superfluous conversation between spouses is recorded.”  In rabbinic tradition, many of the teachings related to death and dying serve the purpose of making us think about how we live our lives. The life review is a moment of soul accounting, and hopefully we have lived a life in which our better moments outweigh the bad. 

After leaving the body, the next stage of the soul’s journey is a period of time in Gehenna, traditionally understood as a place of purgation and purification.  I think of it as a kind of car wash for the soul.  Simcha Raphael understands this next phase in terms of the soul having to deal with unresolved emotional issues. The length of time the soul spends in Gehenna accords with the amount of shmutz that we’ve accumulated over the course of our life.  The idea here is that a soul that transgressed in this world needs some kind of process to deal with those transgressions, to be cleansed of them, in order to move on. The minimum amount of time is said to be 30 days, and even the most wicked spend no more than 12 months.  Gehenna is not like the Christian idea of hell, but to the extent that it is an unpleasant experience, it’s a hell of our own making. The emotional detritus that we bring with us from this life has to be reckoned with before it can be purged.

From Gehenna, the soul moves on to what is called the Lower Gan Eden, the lower Paradise.  This is the point at which the soul loses its previous identity, where individual personality disappears.  Entrance into Lower Gan Eden is described as an experience of pure emotional bliss.  Some souls stay here, and others move on, to Upper Gan Eden. 

Upper Gan Eden is described as a world of transcendental bliss.  Simcha emphasizes, however, that in Jewish tradition, “the quality of one’s experience in Upper Gan Eden is reflective of the consciousness the individual has developed during life” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 349).  That is, if we’ve spent our life focused on acquiring material possessions, on physical pleasure alone, ignoring our spiritual needs, then the transcendental pleasures of Upper Gan Eden will simply not register.  They can only be enjoyed by a soul attuned to the life of the spirit.

Finally, the soul returns to Tzror HaHayim, the “storehouse of souls” or the ‘bundle of life.”  This is a divine realm where pure souls abide. I like to think of it as a kind of cosmic soul soup, from which new souls emerge, and re-enter this world.

So, there you have it, a very brief introduction to Jewish ideas about the afterlife. Come to my class for a much deeper and richer exploration!  But why am I telling you this?  Does it matter that we have these ideas in our tradition? Do I expect you to believe any of it?

I believe these ideas are useful and powerful, whether or not we take them literally.  One reason is because contemplation of death - more specifically, of our own deaths - is a necessary spiritual practice.  We can spend so much of our life anxiously trying to remain in control, because of a root fear of our own mortality.  We spend an enormous amount of psychic energy pretending that we’re going to live forever.  And yet, somewhat ironically, a fear of dying tends to translate into an inability to live well.

Once we embrace the fact that we are going to die, we can relax a bit, and perhaps achieve a greater measure of joy.  Jewish teachings about the afterlife encourage us to imagine that a life well-lived will help us in the process of dying.  The less we cling to material objects, the less we are obsessed with money and things, the easier it will be when the soul needs to separate from the body.   The great Hasidic masters taught that in learning how to die, we in fact learn how to live.

If I treat my neshama, my soul, as something precious, as something that will outlive me—how might that affect how I go about my life?   What if, as a society, we spent as much energy, time and resources on the health of our spirits, as we did on trying to prolong the life of our bodies?

What if we sincerely believed that a garden of bliss awaited us after our death, dependent on how well we had cared for our souls while alive?  The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the good deeds we do in this world create a garment of light that we wear when we enter Gan Eden.  The great Hasidic teacher, the Maggid of Mezrich, taught that “a person’s deeds of kindness are used by God as seeds for the planting of trees in Gan Eden; thus each person creates their own paradise.” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 262) I love the idea of weaving eternal garments of light out of our positive actions, of planting our own Garden of Eden out of our acts of kindness. 

Jewish teachings about the afterlife can also be helpful in the process of mourning. When a death occurs, as the mourners adjust to their new reality, the soul of the deceased is making its own transition from this world to the next.  The practice of shmirah, of sitting with the body before burial and reciting Psalms, and the practice of tahara, the ritual washing of the body, are acts of accompaniment for both the body and the soul of the deceased.  It can be comforting for the mourners to know that their loved one is being cared for in this way. And Simcha Raphael suggests that with these practices, the living give the message to the one who is deceased that “it’s okay to leave behind the world, and move on.”

It is helpful to know that during the week of shivah, the seven days following burial, the soul of the deceased might be hanging around, not quite ready to let go.  Many people have a sense of a loved one’s presence, a dream or even a visual experience of them after they have died. Such experiences are not uncommon, and in Jewish tradition they make sense, as part of the initial stages of the soul’s journey.

The tradition of reciting Mourners Kaddish - which is traditionally done for the first 30 days after a family member has died, and for parents, for 11 months – can also be seen as a practice that benefits both the mourner and the deceased.  Simcha writes, “In mourning, there is a tendency to deny the reality that someone has died, or to ignore or invalidate one’s feelings of grief. Devoting time for saying Kaddish on a daily basis makes it possible for a person to be in touch with their experience of mourning and to pay attention to feelings that emerge in response to loss of a loved one.” (JVA p. 386)

At the same time, there is a belief that each time we say Kaddish, we are helping the soul move on, whether it needs to go through the purification of Gehenna, or is moving through the realms of Gan Eden.  There is an Ashkenazi tradition of toasting “l’chayim!”, “to life!” on the occasion of a yarzheit - the anniversary of a death - and saying, in Yiddish, “de neshomah zol hobben an aliyah,” “may the soul further ascend!”

The theme of forgiveness is also prominent in Jewish teachings about the afterlife.  If we have regrets after someone is gone, then the funeral, and each stage of mourning, are opportunities to seek compassion, both for the deceased person and for ourselves. We invoke God as El Malei Rachamim, the Source of compassion, in our prayers at this time. 

El Malei Rachamim – Source of compassion, may I have compassion on myself, as I seek forgiveness for all I might have done but couldn’t do for my loved one; for all that was left unsaid, for the pain that I couldn’t prevent.  El Malei Rachamim – Source of compassion, I seek compassion for myself if I am unable to forgive the deceased, if there is lingering hurt that can never be resolved.

And we can also imagine El Malei Rachaimim, the Source of compassion, supporting the soul of our loved one, helping it in its transition from this world, enveloping it in love, now that we no longer can.

Traditional ideas about the passage of the soul through Gehenna might be especially helpful for anyone in the position of mourning difficult people, especially abusive parents. It may be impossible to forgive someone who did terrible things while they were alive. And if they never asked for forgiveness, we are under no obligation to forgive.  But if we imagine the soul, after death going through its own process of purgation, having to reckon with the harm that it caused, then perhaps there is a parallel process we can go through here.  Perhaps we can find some way to make a connection to the soul of the deceased after it has gone through its reckoning. Perhaps, if that soul can one day find peace, then we too might one day find a measure of peace.

All of this brings me to Yizkor.  In a moment, we will have the opportunity to remember those who have died, in whatever way is meaningful to each of us.  We can take this time, as Simcha suggests, to open a window to another realm, and see if there is anything we want to say to those who are no longer here.  If there is old pain, we can express it.  If we miss the person, we can invite them in for a conversation.  If the loss is recent, we can say the Yizkor prayers with the intention of helping the soul of a loved one make its transition, helping it move on to a more peaceful place.  Yizkor is an opportunity to connect with the soul, the memory, the spirit, of those who live on in our hearts.

And please use the teachings from our tradition in whatever way is helpful. If you’d like to imagine a soul undergoing a process of purification, reckoning with its errors and sins, then do so. If you’d like to imagine a loved one clothed in light, sitting in an orchard of beautiful trees planted by their good deeds, then be my guest. Or if you just want to have a conversation in your mind with someone you miss, telling them how much you love them, and feeling their love in response, please do so.  May the souls of all those we are remembering today continue to ascend, ever higher.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Yom Kippur 5780


[i] Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 3rd Edition, by Simcha Paull Raphael (Roman & Littlefield, 2019)

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784