“Is It Lying to Say What Happens After We Die,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings
December 24, 2021 / 20 Tevet 5782
Last week as we ended the book of Genesis, I offered these words and engaged the rest of the clergy in thinking about what happens after we die. You can view the entire D’var Torah here (it also includes what the rest of the clergy say) or you can read what I said and then pick up the part of the clergy conversing on video.
Either way, welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a reflection as we make our way toward Shabbat.
It is a scene from the movie, The Invention of Lying. In it, no one lies; they tell only the truth. It’s a comedy. But, there is a profound moment when the main character played by Ricky Gervais is at the deathbed of his mother. The doctor just told her all the details of her death and declared the end of her very existence into eternal nothingness. She is scared and says so. Gervais has tears in his eyes. It is at this moment that a light goes off for Gervais, the son. You can see it in his eyes, welling with water, when he realizes he can do something. Perhaps, the loving son thought to himself: “How can I comfort her? — well, is it a lie?”
He says, in a whisper, “They are wrong.” He longs to comfort her and realizes that he can. He reveals that something does happen after you die.
“There is not eternal nothingness,” he assures her.
“You go to your favorite place in the whole world and everyone you love will be there.
You will be young again and will run and jump and dance. You used to dance!”
Through his tears, he tells her:
Everyone gets a mansion.
Ownership lasts for eternity. (It’s a comedy)
Say hello to Dad for me.
Tell him I love him.”
The monitor beeps, beeps, beeps as the camera closes in on his mother, having just died with a big smile on her face. She is at peace.
In a very funny movie about lying, there is a beautiful truth that is shared. Do we have to suffer believing that nothing happens to us after we die? Isn’t there more than eternal nothingness?
This week’s portion begins with life, called Vayehi — Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to 147 years.
The very next verse lets us know what is about to happen: And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph.
And exacts a promise that he will be buried in the same cave near Hebron as Abraham and Sarah, his grandparents, Isaac and Rebekah, his parents, and with Leah, his wife. Rachel’s premature death brought burial elsewhere.
Before he dies, he blessed Joseph’s son’s Ephraim and Manasseh and counted them among his own, securing their place in the family tribal infrastructure. And then he called for the rest of his sons and told them what is to befall them in days to come. After exacting the same promise he received from Joseph about his burial up in Canaan, Jacob died.
Is that really the end? The Talmud presents a different point of view and other commentators elucidate.
In the Talmudic tractate Ta’anit 5b: R. Nachman and R. Isaac were dining together…After they finished their meal, R Isaac said: “Thus said R. Jochanan: ‘Jacob, our patriarch, did not die.'”
“Was it for nothing,” a surprised R. Nachman inquired, “that the mourners mourned him, the embalmers embalmed him, and the buriers buried him?” I make this assertion from the following passage, was R. Isaac’s reply; for it is said (Jer. 30, 10). Therefore fear not, O Jacob, my servant, says the Eternal. Neither be dismayed, O Israel; for I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again return, and be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid; [In other words:] Jacob is identified with his children; just as his children will live through redemption and beyond so is Jacob also alive.
Tonight we are not going to speak about resurrection, at least not in a physical way. But we are going to wonder aloud, is there life after death and what might that mean?
And to help, I want to bring the clergy forward to converse on this idea.
As they come forward, I want to share another text that provides some texture and another layer.
By Derech Hayyim, commentary to Pirkei Avot by Maharal of Prague (Golem) comments on (Taanit 5b):
“Our father, Yaakov, did not die.” For behold he is in eternal goodness which will not recede at all. And because the [next] world is completely spiritual — as is explained in several places — hence this teaches about that which our Rabbis, may their memory be blessed, said that Yaakov did not die. So there is no doubt that the life of Yaakov now is spiritual — not like this natural life. And this thing is understood.
What might that mean to be spiritually alive even after we die?
- We gather for Qabbalat Shabbat at 6:00 p.m. Join us onsite, on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website.
- Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
- Torah Study will begin at 9:00 a.m. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
- 10:00 a.m.
- 10:00 a.m. Thank Goodness It’s Shabbat at Home. Register to join us on Zoom.
- Havdalah will talk place at 8:00 p.m. Join on Zoom, or Facebook Live, or stream on our website.
Connect with me here. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher