SERMON- Passover - EZEKIEL 37 April 26, 2008 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, PhD
Chag Same’ach – Gut Yom Tov everyone,
Do you believe in the resurrection of the dead? We are about to begin the Yizkor prayer for the deceased. The notion of resurrection, as it relates to the concept of afterlife, is a fascinating topic. Particularly since usually at this time we read the Haftarah from Ezekiel chapter 37, the prophecy of the dry bone. So welcome today, the eighth day of Passover, the grand finale of our holiday. For most of us, Sunday marks the start of a new week, a new beginning. We are refreshed, invigorated; we read the paper, catch up on news, visit relatives and friends, fire up the grill, garden, or watch our favorite sports game.
Not this Sunday. To paraphrase from the Haggadah, "Why is this Sunday different from all other Sundays?" Today marks an end, not a beginning. We bid farewell to Passover. We put away our special dishes. We taste Matzah for the last time.
Some of us will recite Yizkor and remember those closest to us who have passed on. Remembering our loved ones can be sad or emotional; however it's not the end of the story.
So, where do our loved ones go when they are no longer among the physical living? Our sages wrote in the Talmud that some souls go straight to heaven while others may need to go through a purification process to rectify certain improper behaviors before the journey to Heaven. Meaning that some departed souls do not necessarily get a Free Pass to Heaven. The sages go further to say that the traditional Jewish mourning period of 11 months helps the dead through this period. That means that for the wicked person, the first stop is called Gehennom, the Jewish version of Hell.
There is a legend in the Babylonian Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who meets a man covered in dirt from carrying heavy firewood. Rabbi Akiva tells him to stop working like a slave. The man replies that he is the transmigrated soul of a man being punished with hard labor by building a fire in which he is to burn. In his lifetime, he was corrupt and sinful, even leaving behind a pregnant wife. The only escape from the torture in hell was if he had a child who would speak up for him and do good deeds. Rabbi Akiva goes to the town where the man came from only to find that the entire town cursed and hated the man and thought eternal punishment was well deserved. Rabbi Akiva searched until he finally found the man's son and began to teach him Torah. The son of the transmigrated father went on to do mitzvahs and to teach others to praise G-d thus elevating the soul of his father. The tormented soul was eventually released and sent on his journey to heaven.
So, what happens upon the physical death of a person? Do the body and soul depart from each other? Completely? Right away? Many religions have struggled with these afterlife questions. For example, practitioners of some Eastern cultures, like gurus and yogis, claim to have reached such high spiritual planes that they can disconnect their spirits from their bodies at will. Although they are not dead, there seems to be a clear-cut division between body and soul. Some theologians say that upon death, the soul detaches completely. Other theologians say the soul gets dispersed and a part of it stays with the body.
The Kabbalists believe that attaining such spiritual sensitivity and using it for personal growth, to bring people closer to G-d is credible; however, using such knowledge to predict the future is against the will of G-d. So, what should we believe as true and what should we discard as frivolous?
During her Seder this past week, a friend in Pennsylvania witnessed one of these unexplained experiences. The hostess, we'll call her Mrs. E, put her 2 year old grandson to bed earlier that evening. Dressed in his PJ's, he came to the Seder table, "Grandma, that lady is here again." Both Mrs. E and her daughter, the mother of the little boy, left the table for a few minutes. When they returned, they explained that three times during the week, the little boy insisted that he saw a nice lady come into his room just to watch him, even though no one else could see her. Mrs. E, who was not scared or shaken, said that over twenty years there have been many times when lights turned on and off, the doorbell would ring randomly, and she could feel someone watching her. Even her children have felt the presence, a warm breath of someone close. The cat frequently meows at an invisible entity in a corner. No fear, just the sense that a caring someone was watching. Mrs. E believes it is her deceased mother's spirit visiting.
Documented cases of people dreaming about deceased relatives in their sleep, like a parent administering advice, are very common. But what about while the person is awake? Some people hear voices as whistling in the wind. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for wind is "ru’ach" which also means "spirit." One congregant told me that when he heard his deceased mother call his name, he instantly replied, "Mom, did you call me?" A young man came to me after hearing a voice from a closet in his home. He wanted to know, as Jews, what are we supposed to believe. Do we believe in ghosts? Can the dead really communicate to us from the World Beyond?
Because of the mystery, tales from beyond the grave are great material for movies and television shows. Remember the old Jerry Van Dyke television comedy in the 1960's called My Mother the Car, in which David Crabtree's mother was reincarnated into a beautiful antique automobile? When his mother (the car) got upset, she would flash her lights and honk the horn, often taking over the steering wheel to get her way. In 1990, Whoopie Goldberg starred in a dramatic thriller- love story where the murdered Patrick Swayze tried to relay messages from the other side to the love of his life, Demi Moore. Goldberg was the con-artist/psychic who discovered she really did have the ability to talk to the dead. Nine years later, a very young Haley Joel Osment declared in a haunting whisper to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, "I see dead people." Or the film: Overhead Dead Body.
Although it makes great drama, let's talk about this from a Jewish perspective. What do we believe? Do the dead really have the ability to communicate with us? Do they have the ability to control our lives from their grave? Or is this just overactive imagination and the hope that nothing is gone forever?
According to Kabbalistic teaching, the dead have certain powers in Olam Haba, the World to Come. They have the ability to watch us on Earth and follow our daily lives. Yet, there is much debate about the actual amount of influence they have. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, Rabbi Elazar HaKapar says "Those who are born will die, and the dead will live." A confirmation of a life after death.
In the special Haftarah reading for the usual Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach, we read from the Book of Ezekiel Chapter 37. (By the way, in Gematria ["numerical value," in Hebrew] the mystical study of the number 37 has very special meaning, especially in conjunction with this Haftarah. The Hebrew number 37 is written as Lamed, which is thirty, and Zayin, which is seven. These two letters are often written after the name of someone who is deceased, because they represent the words zichronah livracha,which mean "of blessed memory.")
In a vision, the prophet Ezekiel is placed by G-d in a tremendous valley of dry bones. They are the skeletons from the whole house of Israel. G-d asks Ezekiel if what appears to be lifeless waste can ever live again. Ezekiel answers, "Only you can know that" and is instructed to preach to the bones that G-d will breath life into them, cause flesh to cover them, and they will witness the power of G-d. Ezekiel does as instructed, causing the bones to rattle and re-form into bodies. Then G-d takes the winds from all four directions to breathe life into the new beings, resurrecting the dead. G-d tells Ezekiel that He will open up the graves, raising the dead and bringing the entire Jewish nation to the land of Israel. This reminds me of the opening sequence of the old TV show, Chiller Theater, where the hand reaches up out of the grave.
Dying is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning of another journey. Think twice the next time you say, "so-and-so would be turning over in his grave if he knew what was going on..." Maimonides, the great physician and scholar, said that when the body and soul are resurrected, it will become so holy that it will transcend all physical limitations. As a matter of fact, he wrote in the 13 Principles of Faith of the resurrection of the dead.
Every day, we reference the resurrection of our souls. As soon as we rise, we thank G-d for reuniting our body and soul with the prayer called Mode Ani. Three times a day, when chanting the Amidah, in the second blessing we praise G-d, M'chayeh Metim, Rav L'hoshi’a, "You are the restorer of the dead," Melech Memit um’chayeh u’matzm’iach yeshu’ah, "King who causes death and restores life and makes salvation sprout!" V'neman attah l'hachayot metim. Baruch attah Hashem, m'chayeh hametim."And you are faithful to revive the dead. Blessed are you, Hashem, who revives the dead."
What happens then when someone chooses not to come to the Yizkor service? For many reasons, people may not want to say Yizkor. Maybe it is too traumatic or too emotional. Others only attend out of fear that they will be cursed from beyond, disappointing or angering the dead. Can the dead really punish those in the physical world? Knowing what we know, they have their reasons.
In his book Bridge of Life (Gesher Hachayyim, Vol. I, pp. 155-6), the late Rabbi Tikochinsky of Jerusalem explained that each person goes through certain trials and tribulations. If he withstood them, then, after the soul departs from the body it rises to take enjoyment and satisfaction. In anthropomorphic language, we say that the soul is "rewarded with the Divine spiritual brightness."
Our Sages further explain, that the concept which we called World-to-Come (in Hebrew called ‘Olam Haba’) is made up of the actions of the person, which he /she expanded and added and perfected into a place for him/her to dwell. And so it is with the punishment of Gehennom (hell): the sin itself is his /her punishment; it becomes the "space" that he will occupy during the time of his /her "reward. "
Consequently, it is in the Jewish tradition to have the Yizkor service today and to say mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months. The Talmudic Sages teach that at most a very wicked person is spiritually punished in the afterlife in Gehennom is 12 months. The recitation of kaddish shields the departed soul from this punishment. Hence, the custom is to recite kaddish for 11 months only. Saying kaddish the entire 12 months would give the impression that the deceased was a very wicked person who needed protection the entire 12 months. Thus, unless the parent specifically requested it, or unless it's known that the parent was a willful transgressor, kaddish is said for only 11 months.
It is important to note that many Christian Zionists view the state of Israel as part of the fulfillment of the dry bones prophecy...
This subject will be discussed further at length in my upcoming book: Kabbalah Talk.
We are here today, as difficult as it may be, to enable our loved ones to reach Heaven. This is one of the greatest mitzvahs you can do for your parent, your sibling, your spouse, your child. You were with them in the physical world and now your job continues by remembering them along their journey. Feel them close by. They are with you now and witnessing you as you perform this mitzvahin their merit. May the souls of our dear loved ones rise higher and may their eternal souls rest in peace. Amen. Chag Same’ach.
Copyright all rights reserved Rabbi Moshe Weisblum