Our After Life
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
One thing which often surprises people about Judaism is that we don’t have a definitive answer to the question, “What happens after we die?” Naturally, sages and scholars have been discussing this mystery for thousands of years, but it remains exactly that — a mystery. No one knows for sure what the afterlife is, or if there is one at all. It is, I would argue, a rather sensible form of agnosticism. The simple truth is that no one has been there and back, and we have no reliable communication from beyond. The matter could hardly be anything other than unsettled.
What we do have, then, is an endless string of supposition, imagination, hope, and storytelling. Throughout the generations, we have not so much tried to define precisely what the afterlife is actually like, as we have told stories about what it might be like, and about how we can imagine it. One rabbi tells a story of sitting in an eternal study hall, pouring over sacred books, day after day. One mystic tries to explain what it must be like to be reunified with the All. And so on.
One of the most moving moments of afterlife theology came to me from the most unlikely of sources: my non-Jewish, devoutly atheist brother-in-law. Once, at a family gathering, another family member was quizzing him about his lack of belief in God. Along the way, he was asked if he believed in any kind of an afterlife. After thinking for a moment, he answered, “I believe that I will live on after my death in precisely the same way my personality remains in the room after I’ve left it.”
I will die someday. Of that, I can be sure. When that day comes, will I, in some literal way, ascend up to heaven, and find a seat at the right hand of God? I don’t think so, but I can’t say with any certainty whether I will or won’t. Will I possibly remain on this earth as a disembodied spirit, trying to contact my relatives and descendents for all of eternity? I doubt it very much, but I suppose that anything is possible. I won’t claim any special knowledge; certainly not more than the sages of our tradition.
What I know for sure is that, when I do finally pass from this world, I will not be fully gone. I will have students who learned from me, and carry my lessons, and through them a piece of me, in their hearts. I will have people I’ve helped whose lives will be better because of me, and who will spare me a kind thought, now and again. I will have friends who remember a joke that I loved, and will tell it in my name. I will have family members who love me, and speak of me often. In that way, at least, I know I will live on after my life.
My father died a year ago, but I can still remember his laugh, and the look of almost confused awe and pleasure which crossed his face when he held his grandchildren for the first time. My grandpa Bernie died while I was in rabbinical school, but I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the stoop of his shoulders, and the slow, quiet way he talked about things that concerned him deeply. My grandma Gus died my first year as Rabbi here, but I can still remember the taste of the chocolate cake she made me for every special event, knowing that it was my favorite. I could go on, but I’m sharing these not because they’re particularly special, but because they’re so common. Each of us could list the people we’ve lost, and the almost tangible memories they’ve left behind with us.
There is nothing in the world which is more real than the memory of a loved one. When we remember them, we deeply and truly keep them alive in our hearts, and therefore in this world. Through us, even if through no other means, they live on after their life. Through us, even if through no other means, they have an afterlife.
Zichronam Livracha—may their memories be an abiding blessing.