God Squad: My belief in a just afterlife

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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I'm a hospice nurse, and I often find that my patients of the Jewish faith don't believe in an afterlife. In a recent newspaper article, a rabbi answering the question, "How would you explain death to a preschooler?" made no mention of an afterlife or of meeting God. He said that "at the very worst, death is like a deep, deep sleep." I can understand when my patients question what comes after death (we all know what we have here, but no one knows for sure what comes next), but I find it so sad and hollow when a patient who's lived a whole and good life spends his or her last days thinking he will soon fall into a pit of endless sleep. How do you help to comfort them?

-- --F., Old Bethpage, via email

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I know and I teach children and adults that Judaism does believe in an afterlife for our souls. In fact, Christianity got this belief from Judaism.

The Judaism that made the case for heaven was rabbinic Judaism, not biblical Judaism, where the idea of a soul and of heaven is either underdeveloped or nonexistent, depending on the scholarly opinion you endorse. However, after the rabbis encountered Greek philosophy through Aristotle, who was the tutor of Alexander the Great, conqueror of Israel in 333 BCE, the philosophical dualism of matter and form was transposed into the religious duality of body and soul.

This enabled Judaism, and later Christianity, to enthusiastically teach that our souls survive in "the world to come." This is why I recite the prayer at every funeral for the soul of the dearly departed to find rest in "The Garden of Eden." The rabbis taught, "This world is just an entryway to the world to come." They also taught, "One hour of bliss in the world to come is equal to all the bliss of this world." I teach children that the soul of the person they loved is safe and with God.

My belief in the teachings of Judaism that death is not the end of us is not a scientific fact but a core religious belief. It's also a part of my hope that there will be a time and a place where the scales of justice, which are often so askew here and now, will be set right there and then. Heaven, or the world to come, is a precious teaching of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and is, in my view, the greatest source of hope we have to sustain us in the face of our ultimate human finitude.

* * *

My recent column on the origins and various versions of the famous prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep . . . " brought a torrent of loving and helpful comments. D. wrote to me: "This is the prayer I was taught: 'Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray thee Lord for slumber deep,

And may the darkness drive away,

All fears and worries of the day.

Grant me, I pray my daily needs,

And teach me kindly words and deeds.

And guard all those I love.

Amen.' "

R., from Providence, commented: "I will turn 70 in December. This was on a brass plaque above my brother's bed:

'Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

When in the morning light I wake,

Help me the path of love to take,

and keep the same for Thy dear sake. Amen.' "

I received this from G. in West Islip: "We didn't say, 'If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,' because we knew that Jesus was already right there watching over and protecting us every minute of the day and night, and he would never let go of us. On the other hand, we did need to worry about what we would do tomorrow to be the kind of people he wanted us to be and live the kind of life he wanted us to live in order to thank him for loving us so much, and so that's why we prayed this way:

'Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

In the morning, when I wake,

Make me good for Jesus' sake.' "

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