Saturday, October 23, 2010

Adult Forum class at St. Pat's: A Jewish View of Death and Dying

Birth is a beginning
And death is a destination.
And life is a journey from childhood to maturity.
And youth to age;
From innocence to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness - and often back again;
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding -
From fear to faith;
And from defeat to defeat to defeat -
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning.
And death a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

That poem expresses in about 140 words the Jewish view of life and death. One of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is that life does not begin with birth nor end with death. (Ecc. 12:7). In fact, Jewish thought anticipated the first law of thermodynamics – that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply assumes different forms – and so death is determined by the soul no longer animating the body, not the body expressing the soul, though this is mitigated by considerations such as whether the individual is suffering pain, and Judaism holds that we have an obligation to alleviate pain, even if it contradicts keeping the person alive as long as possible.

For Jews the soul is immortal and eternal – it exists both before and after death and passes from one phase to another. First there is the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body, then physical life, then post-physical life in heaven or paradise, and finally life in the world to come that will follow the resurrection of the dead.
The second phase, the time spent on the earth in a body, is considered crucial, but we have to at least consider the possibility that, since this whole cosmology was made up by people in this phase, they may be giving it undue importance. Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of the soul is considered to be fulfilled during the time it spends in this phase, presencing God in this world by finding and expressing Godliness in everyday life.

The Rabbis teach that there is a paradox in this in that for our actions in this world to make a difference, they must be the product of our free will. If we were to directly experience the power and beauty of God’s presence as we manifest it in this world, we would always choose what is right and lose our autonomy – so they teach that the soul is fully aware and cognizant up until birth, when it enters a condition of total spiritual blackout. We enter a world where the Divine reality is hidden, in which our purpose in life is not clear, and in which there is the appearance of evil and wickedness. In this condition of spiritual darkness, our positive and Godly actions are truly our own choice and achievement.

What we have to guide us in these choices is that the soul is fully saturated with Divine wisdom, knowledge, and vision – herein lies the paradox – we can’t see the truth, and we can’t know it with any certainty, but at the same time we do know it deep down – deep enough that we can choose to ignore it, but also deep enough that we can always access it – this is the choice; to pursue the Godly knowledge within us or to suppress it.

So the very physicality of our everyday life – its opaqueness, its self-centeredness, obsures all knowledge and memory of our Divine Source. This is what Einstein was referring to when he said:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living things and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Because of this veil of illusion, we never experience the full satisfaction of our achievements in manifesting the divine will – achievement and satisfaction exist in different realms – achievement in the physical, and satisfaction in the spiritual – so Judaism teaches that the full reward for good works in this life will come in the next.

The third phase is what we call “heaven and hell,” but the Jewish conception of these is very different from the usual conception. After death, the soul returns to the Divine Source, together with all the Godliness it brought to the physical world by its manifestation of God. It also brings all its negative achievements – the result of the times it suppressed the “yetzer tov” – the Godly impulse – and gave in to the “yetzer hara” – the evil impulse. The soul now relives its experiences and experiences the good it accomplished during its incarnation as incredible happiness and pleasure and the negative as incredibly painful.

This is not punishment or reward, but simply what is called a “cheshbon ha-nefesh” – an accounting of the soul. The accounting is done by the heavenly court; the “judgment” comes by the soul itself confronting a reality of its own life from which it was sheltered in this world. The soul’s experience of the Godliness it brought into the world by its positive actions is the pleasure of heaven (Gan Eden), and its experience of the destructiveness it created through its lapses and transgressions is the pain of “Gehenna” or Purgatory.

The truth hurts, and it also cleanses and heals. The spiritual pain cleanses the soul of the blemishes it accumulated on earth and heals it; thus freed from its accumulated negativity, the soul is now able to experience the good it did and to “bask in the Divine Presence” created by the Godliness it brought into the world. Because the soul is, at its core, unadulteratedly good, the good we accomplish is infinite and the evil we do is superficial and shallow. So even the most wicked of souls experiences, at most, 12 months of Gehenna followed by an eternity of heaven. Also, the experience of Gehenna can be mitigated by the actions of those who are still alive – through prayers and good deeds performed in their memory. Similarly the soul of one who has passed remains involved in the lives of those it leaves behind, deriving pain or pride from their deeds and is able to intercede on their behalf before the Heavenly Throne.

The final phase is “the world to come.” Once humanity as a whole has completed its mission of making the physical world “a dwelling place for God,” comes the era of universal reward – the “next world.” Paradise or Gan Eden is a spiritual world inhabited by souls without bodies. The world to come is a physical world, inhabited by souls with (perfected) physical bodies.

But until then, we in this world experience death as loss, and Jewish tradition has combined this cosmology of death with the process of mourning. Studies of how people accept and move on from loss have shown that the first week, the first month, and the first year are critical. Jewish tradition calls for a week of intense mourning – the mourner does not leave their house, mirrors are covered, and the mourner sits on the floor or on a low bench. Others come to visit, entering without knocking, and bring food so that the mourner does not have to cook. Prayers (minyan) are held in the house of mourning. After the first week the mourner re-enters life, attending Synagogue daily to say the Mourner’s prayer in community and does this for a month. After that first month, the mourner is to resume their normal life and activities and prolonged grieving is forbidden. They say the memorial prayer weekly for a year, and after the first year annually and on specific holy days.

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