THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
Ask Rabbi Pinky – On Death and the Afterlife
Richard G. asks: On Yom Tov, a time of holiday and celebration, what kind of simcha is it to say Yizkor? Or does it have to do with fundraising?
Thanks very much for your insightful question. But before I address your question, I must ask YOU a shailah: So, what kind of Yiddesheh numen is Richard, anyway? Are you so ashamed of your heritage that you have to wave your arms at the world as if to say, "I AM A SHAYGETZ! PLEASE LET ME INTO YOUR COUNTRY CLUB!?" Have you no shame, you mechutziff? I haven't seen such self-hate since Moishe Rabbeinu married a shiksa in the desert! I guess your Hebrew name of Reuven or Yerachmiel was a bit "too Jewish" for you. Let me ask: Have you also had a nose job? Did you have a new foreskin grafted onto the tip of your Schvantzl?
For your sake, I hope that at least your wife engages in certain "goyishe practices" that I have been begging my wife to do for years, if you know what I mean. At least that would make it all worth it…
You indeed touch upon a profound topic that is deeply rooted within the Jewish tradition. Your question, more than anything else, is about Klal Yisroel's attitudes towards death and the notion of an afterlife. How are we to understand the end of life from a Yiddesheh perspective? How should a shtarkah Yid relate to end of life, be it of a stranger, a friend, a loved one, or one's own life? Beyond receiving an inheritance, cashing in on a life insurance policy, or taking over a deceased's coveted seat in shul (right near the aisle, out of sight from the Rabbi), how else should we view the impact of the Great Inevitable on out lives? Is there an afterlife? You know, easy questions…
Of course, we look to the Toirah for this wisdom. In Toiras Moishe, we can see multiple characterizations of the moment of death. They include:
-- Avraham Avinu: "VaYigvah VaYamuss Avraham BeSayvah Toivah Zakain VeSaveyah VaYahaseif El Amuv." – "And he expired and Avraham died, with good fulfillment, old and satisfied, and was gathered to his people." (Beraishis, Perek Chuff Hay, Pasook Khess)
-- Yankif Avinu: "VaYokhal Yaakov LeTzavois Ess Bunuv VaYe'esoif Ragluv El HaMitah VaYegavah VaYayasaif El Amuv." "And Yankif finished issuing directives to his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people." (Beraishis, Perek Mem Tess, Pasook Lamud Gimmel)
-- Moishe Rabbeinu: "VaYumuss Shum Moishe Eved Hashem Ba'Eretz Moiav Al Pi Hashem…Va Moishe Ben Mayah Va'Esririm Shanah BeMoisoih, VeLoi KuHatuh Einuv, VeLo Nuss Likhyeh." "And Moishe, the servant of the Reboinoisheloilum, died there in the land of Moiav, at the word (literally – mouth) of Hakadoshboruchhu…And Moishe was 120 years old at his death, and his vision did not fade and his strength had not gone. (Devarim, Perek lamed Daled, Pasookim Hey, Zayin )
I ask you, you mechutziff, what does the Toirah tell us about the afterlife? Nothing. Shoom Davar. Gornisht. Bupkis. All it says is "gathered to his people". That can mean anything. It can mean that he joins the dust in which all his people rest eternally; that he goes to Shamayim to eat the Levyasoin -- deep fried in beer batter – and washes it down with a nice Heineken; or that he gathers with his people at a Stones concert and drops acid. We do not know; it is not clear. (Mamesh, who wrote this stuff, anyway? Could He at least have taken some sort of writing class, or had a good editor do a quick review?)
In reality, we have to look to the later writings, to the Neviim and especially to the Kesuvim, to find a solid reference to the notion of an afterlife. However, since you are typically too busy drinking scotch during the Haftoirah, you Nevailah, I will not cite those references. Rather, I will focus on the writings of the Rabbis.
Chazzal were clearly troubled by the ambiguity surrounding death and the afterlife. As a consequence, they developed a very broad set of perspectives on Oilum Habah, fleshing out the idea of the World to Come, while at the same time taking out life insurance policies on all of their elderly relatives.
According to Chazzal, there are many things that entitle one to Oilum Habah. A Mishnah in Avois tells us, "If one saves a life, he gains a Chaylek (a share) in Oilam Habah." A Braisah in Eiruvin tells us, "If one checks the Eiruv before Shabbos, he gets a share of Oilum Habah, plus an option to buy five shares of Google at the average closing price of the last six months." And a Gemarrah in Kesubois tells us, "If a man brings his wife to her," errr…, "fulfillment before he achieves his, he is entitled to Oilum Habah. And if he is really lucky, sloppy seconds."
Essentially, the Rabbis aligned their views with the Pharasaic notion of an afterlife linked to reward and punishment. In their quest to understand the ways of the Reboinoisheloilum, they confronted the ultimate truism of life: Life is fundamentally not rational. And, Chazzal deduced, if life, and human society, and experience on earth, are not rational due to unfair individual fates, plagues, war, etc., there must be an unseen part of the equation that provides balance to the inequities of the fragile human experience. And if that balance is not in this life, Oilum Hazeh, it must exist in another dimension, Oilum Habah.
And who can say they were wrong, you minuval? You can't even tie your own shoes without reading the Shulchan Aruch! Meilah, there are many things in the world that are invisible to the human eye. If I told you a hundred years ago that our bodies are governed by DNA, strands which are shaped like double twisted staircases (or like Duvid HaMelech consummating his special "personal treaty" with Yehoinasan on HaMelech Shaul's couch) would you have believed me, you mechutziff? No, you probably would have checked my brain for Shatnez!
No. Rational thought, as represented by what we can observe with the naked eye, or, in the modern day, by science, can only take us so far. Science can explain to us the "how" and the visible. But it cannot explain to us the "why" and the invisible. Consequently, no matter how rational you think you are, you vilda chaya, you still don't have all the answers.
So Chazzal, struggling with these issues, built upon earlier ideas in Tanach and other insights (often borrowed from the wisdom of other cultures) to imbue in our tradition an appreciation for the unseen, a speculation about how everything in the rational universe, including humanity, is part of a greater whole. Much like a cholent, there are many ingredients mixed together and simmered in a crock pot for twenty hours, yet are individually recognizable as their original form when removed from the pot. Yet they contain the flavor, and contribute to the essence, of the entire recipe. And whether or not they are the meat or the potatoes or the barley or the beans, they all cause the same flatulence.
In considering this topic, Reb Shimoin Bar Yochai suggested that we are all connected to the Reboinoisheloilum through the Ten Sfirois, the ten attributes of the Aimishteh, which link on one end to the Ain Soif, the unknowable aspects of Hakkadoshboruchhu, and on the other end to the universe as we see it and experience it.
As the Kabbalists understood, within the Ten Sfirois, there are multiple factors in play that impact life on Earth. Picture the Sfirois as the Reboinoisheloilum's body – whatever happens in His body has an effect on the world. When there is a blockage between Din and Chesed -- BOOM! -- chest pains, which result in a earthquake in our world. If Bina gets hit, Chochma also hurts, resulting in a landslide or a plague. And when Keter has a headache, Yesoid doesn't function the way it used to when the Reboinoisheloilum was fifteen years old, if you know what I mean, resulting in erectile dysfunction for all of Klal Yisroel, chass v'sholom.
"So what does this have to do with attitudes towards death?" you ask, you impatient Neveilah. Well, when someone leaves this world, their essence returns to the broader whole. Yes, part of their essence is the observable matter, the physical body that becomes the dust in the ground and the nourishment in a worm's belly. But, in our tradition, we also acknowledge the unseen part of a person's essence. It is not clear what that means, whether after death one retains his individual identity or simply becomes part of a broader collective consciousness. But he exists in some other dimension. And, in our tradition, we acknowledge that unseen essence in numerous ways, including through the reciting of Yizkor.
So when do we recite Yizkor? Four times a year – on Yoim Kippur, Sukkois, Shavuois, and Pesach. Farvoos? We recite Yizkor to call upon the unseen essence of our loved ones in order to appease the Reboinoisheloilum, as embodied in the Ten Sfirois, so that we will enjoy the Aimishteh's benevolence. Or at least not be blown into little bits though global nuclear destruction resulting from Hakkadoshboruchhu's cosmic indigestion.
What does this mean? On Yoim Kippur, originally the only day when Yizkor was recited, after 20 hours of fasting the Reboinoisheloilum gets a little cranky. And who can blame Him? How do you feel by Mincha time, you Mamzer? So we pray on behalf of our dear departed to influence the cholent that is the collective, so that the Aimishteh's empty belly doesn't cause Him to crush us like ants because he finds our howling at dusk completely disingenuous.
On Sukkois, by the fifth day the Reboinoisheloilum is getting tired of eating his afternoon snack of pretzels and juice in the cold Sukkah. So we say Yizkor so that the chill within the Ten Sfirois does not translate into a chilly reception for Klal Yisroel. Similarly, on Shavuois we worry about the Amishteh's crankiness due to lactose intolerance. And on Pesach, we worry that Hakkadoshboruchhu is in a horrible mood because He is completely backed up. After all, He MUST be an Ashkenazi, and would certainly never eat Kitniyois!
With regard to your final question, about whether Yizkor is all about fundraising – such a suggestion is a total shandah! You should be ashamed of yourself, you minuval! However… as you are preparing for Yizkor you should always remember Yeshivas Chipass Emess, especially by buying copies of my book at:
After all, what better way to guarantee a spot in Oilum Habbah?
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess