Editor’s Note: This guest post was submitted by Judith Wolf Mandell, author of Sammy’s Broken Leg (Oh, No!) and the Amazing Cast That Fixed It. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the book’s website, www.sammysbrokenleg.com.
No one knows what happens after death. Your guess, notion, image, construct is as good as mine. What I do know is: the thought that my loved one is gone, becoming bones in a box in the earth is unacceptable. In the current parlance, I would never be able to say of that thought: it is what it is. That image would give me no comfort, whatsoever. I don’t think I could ever get over that grief, that sense of loss, of unimaginable nothingness.
So, I thank God my religion gives me permission to create a belief about what happens after death that brings me comfort. No one has ever, ever come back from the dead to contradict my belief.
We each begin as a “life force” — a pre-person — when cells unite and, miraculously, grow exponentially and usually “just so,” until, nine months later, a new life begins. It’s fanciful to buy into the traditional Jewish belief that God gives the fetus a soul at 40 days. Whatever. But I do believe that God animates the baby’s soul with his/her first breath, first cry.
It’s said, and I believe, that a person’s soul belongs to God, even during the person’s lifetime. That’s why: we can’t point to where or what the soul is, but when our soul is touched by nature, art, love, we just know that what we’ve experienced is “beyond us,” is connected to God. When we behave badly, our conscience — a sub-part of our soul, I think — hurts; we have offended God, and our larger soul. Conversely, when we are valorous or kind or a doer of mitzvot, we can almost sense our soul, and God, feel gratified.
At the moment of death, the outrush or outsigh of our last breath is the return of our soul to God…and an instantaneous whoosh to a life-to-come that is totally unlike our lives on earth. In the afterlife, all souls are healed of what ailed them in their earthly life. And, as the Torah says of Moses, a person is “gathered to his kin” — that is, the soul meets up with and is embraced by the souls of family and friends who have gone before. What happens after the big reunion I don’t know, but it feels pinky-peach, harmonious, tinged with God’s own lovingkindness.
We used to say of the dead: “May he rest in peace.” Now we say: “May his memory be for blessing.” That more active incantation welcomes the effect of the departed on our lives. Maybe God delegates souls as guardians of their loved ones still on earth. Those souls dip down to affect the living: a memory, a found penny, a “tap” on the shoulder, a dream — souls have ways to communicate that we can’t grasp, but can feel. It’s like believing in fairies: we used to, and so the fairies existed in our lives. If we believe in living souls, then those souls exist for and with us, not only in memory but in deed.
I find these beliefs calming. Without them, I really don’t think I could bear the finality of the death of a dear, loved one.