Oct. 3, 2010
Yom Kippur Morning Sermon, Sept. 18, 2010, by Rabbi Martin Weiner
Shanah Tovah, friends, I would begin my Yom Kippur morning message with a question and a story. First the question: I have been officiating at High Holyday services for half a century. In all those years what prayer do you think has personally touched me with the deepest emotions? Kol Nidre? Avenu Malkaynu? The Unah Tanah Tokef? Or the inevitable, none of the above? I'm going to give you an answer? However, when I do I would plead with you not to look at the passage in your Machzor -- your High Holy Day Prayerbook -- until I have completed my sermon.
Now to the story. On many occasions I have spoken to Christian church groups who were visiting our synagogue. At the conclusion of our tour I always welcomed questions. Inevitably one of the visitors would ask, "Rabbi, what do Jews believe about immortality? About Heaven and Hell? I would usually give the following brief answer: In Jewish tradition our focus is on life here on earth, not on an after-life. Our concern is to struggle for justice here on earth -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, freeing the captive -- because they are the right things to do. In a sense we don't worry about what that will mean later on. We let heaven and hell take care of themselves. I could always see a very puzzled look come over the faces of my Christian visitors. Remember these folks were often very devoted church members. In their tradition a concern for an after-life is very important. A longing for heaven or a fear of the bad place are crucial elements of religious faith for many Christians.
Now to my opening question: During these High Holydays what prayer has personally touched me with the deepest emotions? Certainly I am profoundly moved by all the specific prayers that I mentioned. However, the actual answer is "none of the above." The prayer that I have found truly moving is in the closing or N'eelah service. Remember you all promised not to look for the prayer until I have completed the sermon. As you can imagine leading a Yom Kippur service can be demanding physically and emotionally on a rabbi or cantor. It is a twenty-four hour period in which we offer a full measure of heart and soul. After all that incredible outpouring of emotion and energy, as a rabbi, I am truly touched by a prayer about the ultimate destiny of my congregants and myself. The prayer reads:
"The day is fading; the sun is setting; the silence and peace of night descend upon the earth...From your house, O Lord, we are about the return to our homes." Then the prayer continues, "...still another dwelling-place have You destined for us, O Source of life, an eternal home to which we shall go when our brief day on earth has passed." It's a truly powerful affirmation. It is one of the few places in the Jewish prayer book in which we proclaim our longing for a life after death.
My friends, I cannot adequately convey my depth of feeling when I say those words. Throughout our many hours of prayer on Yom Kippur each of us struggles with the deeds and misdeeds of our lives. That prayer brings up the ultimate question: What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens to us at the end of our days? Unless we or a loved one is very ill or has died, I truly believe that Yom Kippur is one of the few times that we as Jews come close to considering our immortality.
Allow me for a few minutes to expand on that question in my opening story. My response to the Church group was correct. But it was not the complete answer. What does Jewish tradition believe about heaven and hell, about immortality? I would like to explore this with you because I believe that question has an ultimate meaning for this Yom Kippur Day.
Judaism and Immortality.
If we go back in history three thousand plus years it might surprise you that in the Hebrew Bible -- there is very little about life after death. King Saul speaks to the Woman of Endor who supposedly has risen from the dead. The Psalms speak of a place called Sheol. It is sort of a netherworld of the spirits, but it is never defined. These are really only brief poetic references. Most scholars would agree that for over a thousand years in the Biblical period there is really no clear mention of heaven or hell.
But then we come to the Roman period about two thousand years ago. As we know the Romans made peace with a vengeance. Living under the vicious power of the Roman Empire was awful. Life was so terrible here on earth that people understandably longed for something better. It was during this rabbinic period that Jewish tradition affirms a belief in life after death. This tradition carries through until modern times.
There was a heaven. A a "good place," so to speak. In rabbinic literature, it actually has three names.
The Olam Ha-bah -- the world to come.
Pardays -- Just like it sounds -- Paradise.
Gan Eden -- The Garden of Eden.
You may have heard that Jews don't believe in hell. That is not quite true. Beginning in Roman times and extending through the Middle Ages until the Modern Era, Jews believed in a "bad place" called "Gehinnom." If you have read the short stories or novels of I.B. Singer, you have come across that word. The Hebrew word Gehinnom literally means the valley of a man named Hinnom. It is an actual valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. Scholars feel that it was a place where the Canaanites may have cremated their dead or offered human sacrifices. Over the course of the centuries that "place of burning" became the name of the "bad place." There is a rather amusing footnote to this bit of history. The Israelis created a park on that site. They turned hell into a park.
We should note that even in these pre-modern times, the Jewish concept of heaven was rather different from that of our non-Jewish neighbors. There is very little mention of golden streets and angels with wings. One of my favorite rabbinic stories captures this Jewish view of heaven very well. A man finds himself in paradise. He looks around and sees that he is in a simple room. There is a large table in the room. Around the table there is a group of sages studying the Talmud. The man is amazed. He asks, "What is going on here? I thought that I was in paradise. These men are doing the same thing here that they did back on earth. Then a Voice responds. There is always a Voice. The Voice proclaims, "The Sages are not in paradise. Paradise is within the Sages." What a strange answer! What does it mean? In the midst of the dangerous and troubled medieval world the Jewish people simply longed for an opportunity to live in safety, security, and serenity. They longed to work and to study and to live in peace with their families. That was their view of heaven.
We come now to modern times. In the last century and a half what does our Jewish faith affirm about life after life? We have moved away from a belief in a specific heaven and hell and focused on the concept of Immortality of the Soul. This would be a belief that each of us as human beings is blessed with a spiritual aspect -- a Soul. It is that soul that lives on after our days on earth have been completed. In fact there is a clear reference to that idea in those N'eelah prayers that I find so moving.
I want to be very honest with you, my friends. In these current times there is a very broad spectrum of belief concerning life after death. Some Jews truly believe that when they die they will meet their beloved parents and grandparents who passed away before them. At the other end of the spectrum there are Jews who believe that we are born and we die. Our bodies return to the earth and that is the end of the story. My friends, I firmly believe that both these very different views and others on this broad spectrum are worthy Jewish beliefs. None of us really knows the ultimate truth about this question. All of our lives we will search for an answer which satisfies the longing of our hearts.
At this point in my sermon some of you are doubtless wondering, "Rabbi, what do you believe about Immortality. I'm going to respond, but I must tell you that my comment is not the definitive Jewish answer. It is simply my personal answer. You could ask several other rabbis and find different comments.
Permit me to offer two brief responses that I find personally meaningful.
First, my belief regarding immortality is very much based on my approach to faith in God. I am one of those individuals who is overwhelmed with the wonders of creation I see around me: I marvel at the incredible vastness and orderliness of the stars and planets that move with such speed and precision. Here on earth I am overwhelmed with the wonders of nature: the growth of towering Redwoods and beautiful roses all from tiny seeds containing the code of life. I am amazed at the migration of birds and sea creatures over vast distances. I stand in awe at the way our human bodies and our brains function to carry us through life. I have always marveled at the miracle of human birth. Can all of this exist purely by chance or by accident? I don't believe so.
I will readily admit that the world is not perfect. What about floods and hurricanes, diseases and earthquakes? Because we, as humans, have free will, we can choose to do terrible evil things to one another. Truly, I am aware of these dark realities in the human experience and have struggled with them in my teaching over the years. But, if I step back and view the big picture of this earth and this universe, it is hard for me not to believe that there is a Creative Spiritual Power which is responsible for the wonders I see all about me.
I have always been moved by the comment of the greatest scientist of modern times. It was Albert Einstein who wrote, "I believe in God, the God of Spinoza, who is revealed in the orderly harmony of the Universe... I believe that intelligence is manifested throughout all nature. The basis of all scientific work is the conviction that the world is an ordered and comprehensible entity, not a thing of chance."
Here is the essence of my personal approach to Immortality. Here is my life. I was born here. I will die in five, ten, twenty years. Who knows? If the world I see about me now is filled with such creativity, orderliness, and meaning, it is hard for me to believe that when I die there is only chaos and nothingness. It simply does not make sense to me. Do I believe in a specific heaven or hell? No! Not really. But with all my heart I believe that there is some spiritual continuity for all of us after we die.
My friends, with that very personal confession I would offer you a very important second and final response to the question of immortality. I have long believed in something I would call Practical Immortality. What is Practical Immortality? Each of us lives on in the lives of those individuals whose lives we have touched.
At this moment I would venture to say that each of you in the congregation could think of a parent or grandparent, a teacher or a colleague, or a friend who has influenced your life in a very precious way. That person has helped to make you who you are this day. That individual helped you to fashion the personal qualities, the skills, the experiences that have made you who you are.
Once again allow me to be rather personal. As I do so, I hope that each of you will be thinking about your own lives -- your friends and family. I believe that my ability to warmly and patiently work with people was inspired by my parents -- Yetta and Ben. I am a rabbi because of the love for Jewish tradition that was inspired within me by my Paternal Grandparents, Joe and Rose. I will never forget the family Passover Seders at my grandparents' home. My grandson Jacob once gave me a lovely compliment. He said I was a fine grandfather. I told him that I was only trying to be the kind of grandfather for him that my grandfather was to me.
I have a love for Shakespeare's plays and became an English major in college, because of a gifted high school English teacher. My love for Jewish history was inspired by an outstanding professor at rabbinical school. My son, Daniel, also a rabbi, studied with the same teacher. My son and I both wrote our rabbinic theses with that scholar. If I have had an ability to deal with the challenges of synagogue life, that wisdom came from a rabbi who was my mentor when I was a seminary student in Cincinnati. My friends, sadly all of the individuals whom I have mentioned, are no longer alive. Yet in a very real sense they have not died. They live on through me and my family and countless students and rabbinic colleagues whose lives they have influenced.
As I was speaking, I hope that many of you were considering your own personal experience with Practical Immortality. I truly was touched by Rabbi Feder's mention of me in this regard in his sermon last night. On this Yom Kippur day it important for each of us to think about those who have touched our lives in the past and how in the future we might continue to pass on their precious gifts to family, friends, neighbors, and the human community.
Each of us has an opportunity to affirm this kind of wondrous Practical Immortality. This idea is beautifully captured in a very dramatic passage from the famous novel and film, The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. The young hero, Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, bids farewell to his beloved mother. He knows that he will probably never see her again. Tom reassures his mother about the future with these words, "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look -- wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build -- I'll be there, too."