A month ago, my mother-in-law’s brother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Tom (may his memory be for a blessing), was far too young, too healthy, and too committed to his family for anyone to accept his sudden death as anything but a shock.
When leaving the funeral, my mother-in-law, Linda — who is a catholic — asked me what Judaism has to say about what happens after death. A valid question – and a timely one, as we had just heard a beautiful and well-developed description of Heaven and Tom’s likely experience of it from the priest officiating the funeral mass. Surely I should be able to provide the same sort of concrete answers that were clearly comforting to so many of the catholic faithful in attendance? Shouldn’t I have similar resources at my disposal, as a rabbi who will be often tasked with delivering the eulogies of those who pass too young, too healthy, too alive?
My answer, as you may guess, wasn’t anything like the beatific vision that the catholic tradition teaches. My answer to Linda’s question was vague, and likely unsatisfactory. It went something like this, “Well, so… there’s actually no real mention of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, and the earliest rabbis only refer vaguely to a ‘World-that-is-Coming’. As a result, Jews have adopted nearly every possible perspective on the issue – believing in different times and places in reincarnation, resurrection, and sometimes in the destruction of the soul after death.”
While I appreciate that my tradition is nearly always open to many different answers to any one question – for certain questions it’s just plain unsatisfactory – because there are certain questions that are not asked in order to survey the possibilities that may exist, but instead are asked for the express purpose of seeking something that is deeply in need – an answer. True to form, the Aramaic verb ב.א.י is used by the Talmud to mean: 1) to ask , 2) to want, and 3) to need. Even in the multiplicity of definitions we can see the understanding that some questions simply need a single answer – asking – and an answer well-thought out and reasoned fills far more of that need than a selection of possible answers.
As a result of all this, I’ve thought a great deal about how to answer Linda’s question in the future – as surely it will be asked of me many times. Is it possible that there is an authentic Jewish tradition that can provide a single narrative of what we expect after death while also honoring the diversity of Jewish belief on the subject? I think there is – and that the narrative we seek is embedded within Psalm 23. Often associated with funerals and mourning, Psalm 23 clearly has some content dealing with death and comfort – but it goes far beyond that. Because of consistent errors in its translation and interpretation, Psalm 23 has gone largely ignored as the most direct and useful depiction of what an authentic Jewish after-life looks like.
Much of the confusion stems from the fact that the majority of the verbs in the psalm are in the imperfect aspect – this means they could mean any action not yet completed – that is, either in the present or the future. Yet if you look at the top twenty English translations of the first verse you’ll see that every single one is either in the present, or the jussive (shall). Not a single one is true to the ostensible meaning of the text – the future tense. Before we go further, I want to provide a complete translation of Psalm 23 as I believe it should be understood – and then we see with little effort the view of the after-life contained within:
1) A Psalm of David
The Lord is my shepherd; I will not lack for anything
2) God will help me to lie down in green meadows;
By serene water God will guide me
3) God will return my soul;
God will guide me along paths of righteousness, for the sake of God’s name
4) Even though I will walk through the valley of deepest darkness, I will not fear evil – for You will be with me;
Your rod and your staff will comfort me
5) You will set a table for me opposite my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil – my cup has overflown
6) Thus, goodness and love will follow me all the day of my lives;
And I will dwell in the House of God for the length of my days.
I think there are a few things worth pointing out here. First of all, the first few verses clearly seem to describe a journey of sorts. The narrator is walking, rested, being guided by a shepherd, taking certain paths, and finally entering a valley. From the start through to the mid-point of verse four (which is the climax of the action), we see that the narrator is being guided by God, who, like a shepherd, offers time to rest and water to drink. If we assume that Psalm 23 is describing the post-death experience (which we should), then we can see in this the first biblical conception of an after-life. Several concrete points stand out: God will guide us, we will not be in need of anything, God will make sure we are on the right path, and most importantly – God will return our souls to us.
Here, and in the last verse, there is the vague sense that what underlies the psalm is a notion of reincarnation or transmigration of souls. However, this isn’t the complex, punishment-oriented, bizarrely specific reincarnation imagined by R. Isaac Luria as gilgul and made into a mainstay of Chasidism. This is a simpler, less specific, and frankly, more believable conception that – in some way or another – our souls will be returned to us and we will live many lives.
Before we do however, we must pass through the valley of what in Hebrew is צלמות – a bizarre word that seems to imply deep black darkness, but literally means ‘shadow-death.’ We learn that we must walk through this place. In order to pass from one life to another, we must traverse the valley – but we mustn’t do it alone. Just as God had guided the narrator to the valley along the paths of righteousness, so too God is with the person who finds themselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The second part of the psalm is an affirmation of all the good that God has done for the narrator, and the connection to the implication that surely, God will continue to comfort, to act with mercy and love, even after death. “All the days of my lives,” goodness and love will follow us. The threat of the valley is counterbalanced by the promise of comfort to come after it.
Ultimately, we still can’t say a great deal about what Judaism has to say regarding the after-life. But, we have just as much as we need, and just enough to be a believable concept that makes for a flexible and comforting narrative. We can look at Psalm 23 and take comfort in what it tells us: that after death we will embark on a journey, one guided by God, who will lead us a shepherd leads sheep through the Other World. We may encounter frightening and terrible things, but we will be accompanied by God, who will return our souls to us and return us to the world, in one form or another.
It may not have the drama of Christianity’s ‘Pearly Gates’ nor the sex-appeal of the Qur’an’s beautiful-eyed houri – but I feel like Psalm 23, properly understood in it’s future-tense context, has the potential to be a meaningful and inspiring Jewish narrative of the after-life – one that leaves room for a wide diversity of belief while still providing concrete details about what we can expect after life.
To Linda: what I should have said is this – that Tom is being guided by God along a journey through the World-to-Come, a journey that will culminate in the return of his soul to our world. To Tom: we look forward to seeing you someday on the other side of the Valley through which we all must pass.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.