Welcome. Good to see you all. We are about to recite the communal yahrtzeit, our sacred Yizkor prayers for our dear departed loved ones. Many people have asked me this question : "Rabbi, where exactly are the deceased?" Our tradition tells us they are in a place call heaven. Let’s explore this concept.
We believe in heaven and earth. Earth is relatively easy to describe. What are some facts about our world? Firstly, approximately 70% of the earth’s surface is water and I know we have felt it lately with so much rain. The earth has 4 major bodies of water, the oceans – the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic. Land makes up the remaining 30% comprised of 7 continents, or large masses: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia. Then there are the geographic components such as deserts, lakes, mountains, and rivers. There is also the sky and clouds. Furthermore, Earth is one planet in the solar system. Other planets are Venus, Pluto, Jupiter, Saturn, etc. Stars, galaxies, and constellations also fill the universe.
What about heaven? Where is it located? What is it? What does it look like? How big is it? Where in heaven are our loved ones? What do our sages and Biblical commentators tell us about heaven?
According to the Bible and mystics, it’s the place G-d created on day one. In the Book of Genesis – G-d created heaven and earth.
Heaven is mentioned first; does this mean it was created before earth?
Heaven is where souls are created and/or stored.
Heaven is also where souls go to after their life mission is completed on earth.
Kabbalah claims that some souls return to earth several times until they complete their divine mission whereas other souls come to earth only once. This is the theoretical basis of Gilgul or reincarnation.
Husband and wife are considered soul mates, a male half and a female half, forming a whole.
Heaven is referred to as the "afterlife" – or "the world to come".
We refer to G-d as our "Father in heaven", our paternal parent.
Souls can travel. For example, Jewish tradition believes that the souls can visit earth to be present at a wedding.
We are told the Gates of Heaven are always open.
Are there really gates there? What kind? Where do the angels fit in? What are the images you have in your mind when you hear the word "heaven"? How do you envision your departed loved ones? But what happens to the soul? These intriguing questions have been discussed, debated, and explained for centuries.
For a moment, let’s backtrack to the origin, the beginning of life. According to biology and human reproduction experts, through fertilization an embryo forms, either naturally or through modern technology such as invitro-fertilization. Approximately 9 months later a baby is born either by regular delivery or cesarean. The baby comes out – it’s a girl or boy, the child grows with hair, eyes, fingers, skin and the process of life develops. Then the person dies, life ends, and they are returned to the grave, to dust and the body decomposes. But what happens to the soul?
Another reality is that not everyone knows the whereabouts of their relatives. Sadly, we still have an entire generation of holocaust victims unaccounted for with no graves or proper resting places. Others are fortunate to have tangible evidence of their loved ones existence such as pictures, portraits, or painting, tombstones, graves, synagogue memorial plaques or dedicated humanitarian projects or charities named in their deceased’s honor.
Moreover, the same way we celebrate a person’s birthday, the same date, year after year, is similar to the reason we pay great care to the correct yahrzeit date. It is for accuracy and respect.
So why do we pray to the souls of the departed? For example, do we believe we help the departed rest more peacefully? Do our words truly assist them? If anyone has ever dreamt about a deceased relative, then you may have experienced a profound reconnection or gained some valuable message or timely guidance through their appearance. Does the departed have an influence on us even though they are technically gone? Many believe they do.
For example, one lawyer, Martin Shenkman, renowned author of over 25 books on estate planning and Jewish values, states that the deceased can control the living even from the grave. For instance, he helps his clients to write wills from a Jewish perspective with specific wording regarding their wishes after death. For example, in one will, the parent definitively wrote that upon his death, he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, Israel. The executrix would be given the power to release money for such a burial and plot. Additionally, the will stated that each year on his yahrtzeit, the executrix was authorized to pay for one of his children to fly to Israel, all expenses paid including meals, lodging, transportation, and reimburse for their time away from work, all in order for someone to say Kaddish on his yahrtzeitspecifically at his gravesite in Jerusalem. If at any time each year, a child was unable to do this, then the executrix would find a reputable substitute such as a Jewish organization or a Rabbi to recite Kaddish with financial compensation for all reasonable services rendered.
Additionally, attorney Shenkman tells many fascinating stories of how each person can transmit one’s values and legacy from the grave to future generations as long as things are legally spelled out during one’s lifetime. Truly fascinating!
Now we prepare to say the special prayers that reach out and communicate to the departed souls – let us pray for their welfare and beseech them to use their powers to help us achieve what we need today and into the future. Let us remember that the two worlds, heaven and earth are seriously connected, it’s a two way street.
May we experience a sincere and profound re-attachment to our loved ones that will be a Kiddush Hashem, beneficial for all concerned! And let us say: Amen.