Archive for the ‘Immortality of the Soul’ category

Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil

September 19, 2013

While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal.  For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God.  To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come.  Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.

It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul.  In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal.  Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out?  The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.

Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle.  I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.

Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife.  It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic.  For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts.  The first is that all human beings are essentially the same.  We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical.  Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins.  Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition.  That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance.  It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart.  So what is the source of our uniqueness?  How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?

According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God.  In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins.  When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike.  However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another.  We are each of us unique[1].  If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul.  If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible.  Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot.  With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally.  And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character.  The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.

But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable?  Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms,  But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.

We are all mourners.  There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost.  We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable.  It comes from deep within us.  It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head.  Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings.  In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.

As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well?  Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them.  Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way.  We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs.  While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just per­haps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.

Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us.  We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within.  We feel their comfort.  We sense their love.  And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone.  We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.

Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf.  Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory.  Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses.  For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach.  For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe.  So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?


[1]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a

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Room With a View Into the Soul

October 1, 2011

So there I was, laying in a bed in a hospital room at the Mayo Clinic.  When I woke up that morning, it was all still kind of a blur.  I had driven to Rochester the morning before in order to have what I expected to be a cut-&-dry post surgical follow-up appointment that afternoon.  Take a quick x-ray.  Have a consultation with the surgeon.  Receive the good news – or the bad news – concerning the success or failure of my surgery.  If necessary, make plans for any future work.  Check into my hotel.  Go out for a nice dinner.  Relax in my room, and be on my way back home the next morning.

But that was not how the day before shook out.  Honestly, I had expected to be told that some of the stitches of the surgery had given way, for I had been experiencing increased breathlessness, in two instances very seriously, which surprised me considering how well my recovery had been going up until just a few days before.  But the x-rays were golden.  The surgery had been a complete success.  So why the breathlessness?  This concerned the surgeon enough to rush me to the emergency room where I was admitted ahead of all those other folks in the waiting room.

There was a lot of lying around and poking, prodding, and sticking before they took me for a CT scan.  They wanted to get a better look at my lungs.  I cannot say that they filled me with confidence as I lay there in radiology, for from the conversation I was overhearing it was quite obvious that the radiologist considered the nurse to be totally incompetent, and she returned the sentiment.  Then it was back to the emergency room and more laying around until a doctor I never met before arrived to inform me that I was being admitted, and then accompanied me to my room.  He told me that I had some blood clots in my lungs but that I should be out of the hospital in a day or two.

Once in my room, I found myself engaged in some heavy negotiations with the staff.  For I have sleep apnea which requires that I sleep with a breathing machine or I cannot sleep at all.  Now I had brought my machine with me, but had planned to use it in my hotel, not in a hospital room.  So it was sitting safely in my car, in the hospital parking structure.  You would think that it would be a simple matter of saying, “Here are the keys to my car.  This is where I parked it and this is what it looks like.  So would you please send someone to get me my cpap machine?”  But it was not, for it seemed that no one had the authority to go into my car; that is until they located a security guard who was willing to brave the dangers of the garage.

It was sometime around 2:00 in the morning when they woke me and took me back to radiology to do an ultrasound of my leg.

So there I was the next morning, laying in my hospital room when yet another doctor walked in.  He was either the fourth or fifth I had seen since coming to the hospital, each one wanting me to tell them my story.  So I asked him up front:  “Am I going to see you again, or am I going to have to go through more doctors before I get out of here?”  “No,” he said.  “I will be the doctor who says good bye to you on the day you are released.”  “Great!” I responded.  “Now tell me.  What’s the story here?”  “You have some clots in your lungs and your leg, so we are going to put you on blood thinners and keep you here another 4 or 5 days.”  “4 or 5 days!” I responded in utter disbelief.  “No one stays in a hospital any more for 4 or 5 days!”  He simply shook his head and said, “You don’t seem to understand.  You are very sick.  You almost died.”

Those words struck me like a hammer.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there was one attack of breathlessness which I had experienced just a few days before, while visiting Shira in Louisville, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever catch my breath again.  Now I knew that small nagging doubt was not just the product of panic but actually an accurate assessment of my situation.  I almost died.

As you can imagine, almost dying gives one pause for thought.  I know it gave me pause for thought.

I suspect that you will think it mere bravado when I tell you that personally, I am not afraid of dying.  But I mean it.  I really am not afraid of dying.  For this was not the first time that I almost died.  There was another time, when I was about 14, 15 years old.  My sister, who was six years my senior, had a very close friend by the name of Essie Hochstein, and Essie had a sister my age named Rosie, with whom I was very close.  The Hochsteins left New York and moved to Florida.  One time, when they returned for a visit, Rosie and I went swimming in their hotel’s outdoor swimming pool.  While in the pool, swimming in the deep end, I found myself getting tired, so I started to swim for the side.  I did some strokes and reached for the side of the pool but it was not there.  So I swam some more and reached out again.  Still, no pool to grab.  That was when I realized that for all my stroking, I was going nowhere.  So I panicked and started to drown.  I went down once, twice, three times, only to discover that going down for the third time was more than an old wive’s tale.  It was a fact.  I had had it.  There was no more fight left in me.  All I could do was surrender to my fate.  So I let go and waited for the end, lying in the water in the classic position of the dead man’s float.  I have to tell you.  I never felt better in my entire life.  I was completely relaxed, both in body and mind.  It was a sensation of absolute peace and tranquility.  Then I started seeing things that logically I shouldn’t have been seeing.  I was looking up from below as I watched my body floating in the water.  Then the next thing I knew, I was floating way above the pool, looking down.  I was struck by the fact that the pool was built in the shape of the letter “R”, which stood for the name of the hotel, the Riverdale Hotel.  It was only momentary, for then I found myself on the side of the pool, on my back, having been rescued by the life guard.

The whole incident took place in just a matter of a few minutes, but they were life changing minutes for me.  For during that short span of time I learned two very important facts – not theories but facts:  1 – Death brings with it profound peace and tranquility.  When we “shed this mortal coil,” with it we shed all the angst and pain and worry and doubt; all the discomfort which is so much a part of living that there are aspects of it that we do not even realize are there until they are truly gone.  Death brings with it an indescribable healing of the soul.  And 2 – That there is a soul; that there is a part of us apart from the body.  I had what is commonly called an out-of-body experience.  You will never convince me that it was an illusion or a fantasy.  It was real; as real as any “in-body” experience which I have ever had.  Having had such an experience, I was privileged to possess, at least for myself, indisputable evidence of the existence of the soul; a spiritual, incorporeal entity in which our consciousness and identity reside, and continue to reside, even when outside of our bodies.  It is the actual energy of who we are.  As the physicists have taught us through the Law of Conservation of Energy,  energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  It simply exists, it always has existed and will continue to exist forever.  Therefore the soul – the energy of who we are – also will continue to exist, long after our bodies have ceased to be.

So as I stated earlier, I am not afraid of dying for I know that dying is not the end but rather a transition into what appeared to me to be a better and higher realm of existence.  So when my time comes, I will welcome that eternity of the blissful tranquility I briefly tasted in that swimming pool so many years ago.

But still, laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, did give me great pause for thought.  Those thoughts did not center around any fear of death but rather upon the urgency of life.  For even while death is nothing that I fear, still it constitutes a very real sense of loss.  For in order to enter into the blissful spiritual realm of the afterlife, one has to surrender the realm of this life, with all that we cherish of this life as well as all that we will gladly shed of it.  There is where the urgency lies.

Are we ready to surrender that which we cherish?  Have we left things undone or unfinished?  Have we maximized the expenditure of our time and energies, both physical and emotional, on those things which are truly important to us or have we squandered our time and energies on matters which, at the end of all things, really mattered little?  These are the questions I found myself asking myself, and these are the questions which each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, even if we do not believe we have been confronted with the imminent possibility of our own demise.

If I had died in that hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, or in that hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, or anywhere in between, would I have died with a life fulfilled or with regrets of opportunities missed and opportunities squandered?  For you see, while I do not fear dying, what I do fear is living a life in which I have wasted too much of myself and my energies on things which, in the long run, really do not matter or at least do not deserve the amount of time and energy I have invested into them.

There are those who easily could choose to interpret such thinking as selfishness and self-indulgence, and indeed, one could turn such thoughts in such directions.  They easily could fuel the drive to a totally self-centered and self-important life.  But for anyone who would take them in such a direction, they would have missed the point all together.  For one to live a life that is solely centered upon oneself is not only to live a life which is meaningless but also, in the final analysis, lonely.  For people who are too full of themselves, leave little if any room for others.  And usually others find in their own lives, little room or patience for those who focus only on themselves.

Of course there is a part of all of us which would love it if we immersed ourselves in self-indulgence.  No one would deny that a certain amount of self-indulgence is not only nice but actually necessary if we are to fuel our own sense of self-value.  Yet while self-indulgence should have a place in the creation of a meaningful life, it should not capture the center stage.  There is both a time when we should center our lives upon ourselves and a time when we need to center our lives upon others.  Indeed, this is what our own great sage, Hillel, tried to teach us when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, drove home for me the message we all need to hear:  Time is short for we do not know how much time we have.  Therefore let us turn our attentions to striking that balance in our lives.  How much for ourselves?  How much for others?

Of course, the issue should go far beyond questions of “How much?”   There is also the question of “What?”  What are the matters that we should hold as important, and what are the matters that we should place on the back burner, if not in the trash?  What are the things that we really would be proud of having accomplished during our time on earth?  What pursuits that seem to have the ability to capture our attention are really in and of themselves either vain or meaningless, or both?  What we choose to do with our lives – what directions we choose to take; what battles we choose to fight; what causes we choose to champion; what relationships we choose to raise up; what goals we choose to pursue; what ideals we choose to uphold; what people we choose to make of ourselves – these are what make all the difference between a life well lived and a life which is wasted.

Make no mistake about it, making such choices and living such a life is not just a matter of the big picture.  It is not just big issues and big choices but it also is small issues and small choices.  The devil is truly in the details of our lives.  These are questions both of massive import and of day-to-day living.  You can make yourself into a hero in the war against cancer or poverty or prejudice, but what does it all mean if you are a nothing or a failure, or even a villain in the struggles to build a family or nurture a friendship or be a good neighbor or be respected in your place of business?

To live a good life is to be able to die with little or no regrets and with a true sense of pride in the person we have made of ourselves.  We will always die with some of that left unfinished, for when it comes to such efforts, there will always be more we can do.  Personal perfection is always at least a step ahead of where we are today.  Yet our hunger should always be to draw as near to that goal as possible.  Every night, we should strive to be able to go to sleep feeling and believing, “If I do not wake, I will leave this world with little, if any, regrets.”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, was a difficult and harsh reminder that there are no guarantees that we have all the time in the world to get our lives in order.  The end can come at any moment.  If that be the case, then we need to make each moment count.  We need to invest ourselves totally in the task of closing the gap between the person who we are today and the person we truly wish to be.