Independent Jewish Synagogue in Asheville, NC

Rosh Hashana 2023/5784 Day 2

Posted on September 19, 2023

Letting Go of the “I”
Yesterday, I tried to show how a theme of being judged and a Judeo-
stoic tradition of accepting the reality of death combined to create a
New Year holiday more about prayers of “who shall live and who shall
die” than about drinking parties and countdowns until midnight. Some
modern interpretations try to work around this by substituting
introspection and resolutions to do better for frank admissions that the
end is nigh and let us beg for mercy. Whatever the tradition’s
shortcomings when it comes to reassurances and inspiration, an
unvarnished take should at least have the virtue of transparency and
facing facts, however unpleasant. To that end, we can thank these
prayers for keeping focus on consequences for life and death in this
world and not in the great beyond. That said, the lesson of yesterday’s
story of Beruriah and her vindication of death as analogous to the
fairness of returning a deposit to a lender suggests some part of us
survives death in order to be “returned to God.” We call this
disembodied self the neshamah, or soul.
The references in the Bible to an afterlife are vague and sparsely
written. This is remarkable in that neighboring ancient near eastern
literature is rife with long and detailed accounts of where we go and
what it's like in the hereafter. Perhaps our biblical ancestors didn’t
believe in it at all, perhaps they simply thought it’s unknowable and
anyway life provides too many other priorities competing for our
attention. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Such things had never
been heard or noted. No eye has seen [them], O God, but You, Who
acts for those who trust in You.”(Isa. 64:3)
There is one biblical passage which, although it’s not about an
afterlife, holds promise for Beruriah’s resolute “return of the deposit.”:
“God formed the Human from the soil of the earth, blowing into his

nostrils a “neshmat chaim,” the breath of life, and the Human became
a living being.” (Genesis.2.7) We have a neshemah of life, some sort
of life force, something that animates an otherwise lifeless body.
According to the Bible, it’s the breath of God. According to Beruriah
and the rabbinic tradition, some day for each of us, God will have to
catch God’s breath.
Jews, at least by the rabbinic period, believed passionately in a
continuation of existence after death, though notably the rabbinic
writings they left us on the subject are rather confusing. There is
“techiyat ha-matim, (resurrection of the dead), which we continue to
pray for in every service throughout the year. There’s also “Olam ha-
ba,” (the world to come) but it’s not clear how this future existence
meshes with the resurrection. Presumably souls wait in Olam ha-ba,
sometimes called “the Garden of Eden,” until the appearance of the
messiah, or the end of history ushers in the resurrection of all or most
of them. Into new bodies, into reconstituted old bodies, and as what
age, marital status, whether we’ll be somehow dressed in clothing,
and so on who can say? At some point, we learn of a “gilgul
haneshamot,” or reincarnation, which either contradicts the concept of
Olam ha-ba, or reduces it to a mere way station on a route back to this
Olam ha-ba is sometimes paired with “Gehinom,” Jewish hell. Some
might think we may have had a taste of Jewish hell by having been
made to go to Hebrew school. Precisely the opposite. The definitive
Talmudic description we are given of Olam ha-ba depicts us as doing
and experiencing absolutely nothing at all save righteously sitting with
crowns on our heads basking in the splendor of the divine presence.
(Ber. 17a) What an arresting image- Jewish heaven as an eternity in
Hebrew school. Perhaps this apparent lack of marketing acumen
bears responsibility for woeful market performance. Jews show a

notable lack of enthusiasm for the rabbinic depiction of Jewish
Even hell, which we call, “Gehinom,” was undersold by mainstream
rabbinic tradition. With only a few minor exceptions, we are spared
Dante’s Inferno type details and descriptions. Instead, we find
emphasis on the maximum sentence of 12 months, and our saying
Kaddish mitigates the hardship. Hardly the stuff of a Netflix miniseries.
It’s worth noting the tradition of reciting Kaddish for a parent for 11
months. We want to do what we can for our loved one by saying
Kaddish. Since 12 is the maximum, we say it for only 11 months.
Why?- in order to demonstrate our conviction that our loved one surely
garnered sufficient merit during their life to earn at the very least a
single month reprieve.
To me, the finest jewish traditions around heaven and hell are the
teachings which redirect our attention back to doing our best in this
world. For example, there’s the story, which may or may not be
originally hasidic, that in Olam HaBa we don’t have elbows. We’re
seated at a heavenly feast but can’t bend our arms to bring food to our
mouths. The sinners, aware solely of their own desires and no one
else’s, sit hungry with the scrumptious feast so close and yet so far
away.Good people realize they can’t feed themselves but can feed
one another, and so everyone can eat. The story isn’t meant to be a
portrayal of heaven – remember no eating or drinking or much of
anything else officially anticipated- so much as it is an allegory
reminding us that those prone to help others will successfully
overcome obstacles whereas bad people will make their own hell
through their selfishness.
Whatever the particular details of our ultimate destiny, the deposited
soul’s return involves a process that’s potentially arduous, though we

may not be powerless to soften the blow. In one place, the Talmud
disconcertingly informs us that the body in the grave experiences
being penetrated by worms the way a living person feels pain upon
being pierced with a needle (Brachot 18b). Fortunately, ours is a
religion for which a contrary opinion can be found for nearly every
doctrine. Elsewhere, the Talmud reassures us that an important sage,
Rav Nachman, reported to a colleague in a dream that death is as
gentle as a strand of hair being lifted off of a pail of milk. (Moed Kattan
28a) These passages may be reconciled by positing that it’s
disorienting for the soul to be wrenched apart from the body. We
spend a lifetime together, body and soul. This makes it difficult for the
soul to leave the body behind. We have a tradition that is based on
this idea. At a shiva, people cover the mirrors. One explanation, I
believe this is the original pre modern take, is that we wish to spare
the soul of the deceased, suddenly untethered, the confusion and
anxiety of seeing everything reflected but its own former body. When
we live our lives prioritizing physical pleasure, our soul could
experience an especially difficult time severing itself from the body,
even as it disintegrates. In contrast, one who cultivates a spiritual
existence, in which physical vigor is harnessed in support of a soulful
life, as Rav Nachman presumably did, may be pleasantly surprised to
find that at the final moment the body is finally worn out, the alighting
of the soul from the body could be as smooth and painless as a hair
being drawn from milk. God’s exhale at our creation is balanced by a
divine inhale as we expire, the Talmud calls this literally the “kiss of
It is this divine kiss which is foreshadowed by Yom Kippur. Having
faced judgment on Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur we rehearse the
verdict. The Talmud implores us to face death with a slate cleaned by
repentance. Since this could befall us any day, we must therefore
repent daily. (Avot 2:10, Shabbat 153a) However, being especially

focused on judgment and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur
fashioned that day to be, traditionally, a rehearsal of our own deaths.
Hence, we don the kittle, a burial shroud. We abstain from eating,
drinking, and lovemaking, in practice for the ultimate abstinence of the
grave. Prior to Yom Kippur we hold Kever Avot, a visit to the cemetery
and future address. Some immerse in a mikveh on Erev YK,
representing the taharah performed by the Chevra Kadisha. We recite
the Vidui, or Confessional of our sins repeatedly from the machzor, a
variation of which we’re expected to do also on our deathbeds.
Throughout the day, we set aside what the columnist David Brooks
calls our resume virtues- the skills we’ve honed and credentials we’ve
earned for marketplace success- in favor of focus and reflection upon
our eulogy virtues, who we loved and those virtues such as kindness,
honesty and courage we hope could be shared at our funerals.
It’s often pointed out that love is a level of devotion that requires a
setting aside of the self in an effort to meld together with the object of
one’s love, and to thus forge a new and united entity. This is the
biblical depiction of the first love, of Adam and Eve – a person leaves
their parents, finds a life partner, and the two become as “one flesh.”
(Bereshit 2:24) This is understood to be an exceedingly powerful
phenomenon. Elsewhere, the Bible tells us, “ki-aza ka-mauvet ahava,
kasha ke-Sheol”- Love is as fierce as death, and it’s tough, like the
grave.” (Shir HaShirim 8:6)
The hasidim have a spiritual practice they call “Bittul Ha-yesh” – “bittul”
means “to nullify” and “ha-yesh” means “the thereness.” “Bittul Ha-
yesh” refers to the discipline of nullifying one’s sense of self, that is,
dissolving one’s ego into the undifferentiated sea of reality. Yom
Kippur is an exercise in bittul ha-yesh, a day spent in preparation for
that dissolution.

There’s a tradition, traceable to the hasidic leader, Rabbi Aaron of
Karlin, that as we leave this world, it’s like taking a hike through the
woods to the home of a long lost, dear friend. At the end of the path,
we find a tiny cottage with a door. As we knock on the door, a familiar
voice calls out from within, “Who is there?” We declare, “It is I, allow
me to enter, do we not love one another?” To which the voice inside
the hut responds, “Yes, only love can transcend the barrier and open
this door, and just so, there is no room for ‘I’ in here.”
Shanah Tovah, may we all be blessed with a year of health,
happiness and success in our endeavors.