In recent decades we Jews – Reform Jews in particular — have submerged mention of the afterlife to the degree that many Jews frame the question to me as an assumption: “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, rabbi?”
I would respond, “Yes, we do!” We just do not place the emphasis on after life as our Christian friends do. NOR are we as specific about the details.
For Jews attaining the reward in Olam ha Ba, the world to come does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we live our lives.
My belief in life after death has two parts: What I hope and what I know.
What I Hope:
I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive in some way rewards from God in a realm beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.
Speaking personally, my father died at age 57 and my mother, who never remarried died at age 88. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.
I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong and vigorous not weak and frail as they both were before they died. I hope and pray also that in some indescribable way they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.
I cannot, of course, prove that any of this is true. Yet I cling tenaciously to my hope.
What I Know:
But there is also an aspect of after life of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.
At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel, The Rabbi the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager, and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise, know they are loved, and they rejoice.”
Each time we do something worthy because of their teaching or example, our deceased loved ones come alive. If we listen, we can hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred Covenant of our faith: Be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2) Study and follow God’s instruction! (Genesis 17:1) Practice and teach those you love to practice righteousness and justice (Genesis (18:19)!
And then, when we turn their teachings into our actions, we know – we absolutely know – that our loved ones are immortal, and they live on in a very real and special way.