Yom Kippur is hard upon us. (Sundown, October 3.) Time for every practicing Jew to take inventory of his or her deeds. If the good outweighs the bad, and we atone sufficiently, God will inscribe us for one more year in the Book of Life. "Shana Tova u'gmar chatimah tovah! May we each be inscribed for good in the coming year."
However, as anybody who has plucked their first gray hair knows, we won't all make the cut. Not necessarily because we have committed unforgiveable sins. The truth is that sooner or later we all die, the righteous and the wicked. Then what?
Here's a thought: There must be some other Divine book out there waiting for us, or if not a book, at least a ledger. For as it turns out, Yom Kippur is commonly understood as a dress rehearsal for what will be our final accounting. As the Talmud Ta'anit 11a puts it: "When a man departs to his eternal home, all his deeds are enumerated before him."
In such a life-focused religion, of course it's great that we want to keep our primary focus on making the most out of our remaining days on earth. That said, the Hebrew Scriptures, Midrash and Talmud have so little to say on the afterlife, most Jews are hard-pressed to have any idea at all of what will happen to them after death, let alone a communal understanding. But as an aging Boomer, one of a lifelong generation of seekers including both Jews and non-Jews, isn't it natural to wonder about what's next?
Recently, I encountered an article in Reform Judaism Magazine Fall, 2014 in which Rabbi Michele Brand Medwin in her "Glimpses into the Afterlife" shares references from a disparate grouping of traditional (some contradictory) Jewish texts to shed some light. Specifically, she is looking for text that relates to popular descriptions of near death experiences. For the first time, I found myself venturing onto uncharted territory beyond the Book of Life to imagine what that other book -- entryway to a Jewish afterlife -- could possibly look like.
In mulling out loud, I brought my imagination to the text, but what I wrote resonates with traditional sources as well as my intuition -- or at least my hope -- that what comes after life will be not the abnegation, but rather, the fulfillment of all that has come before. Here, then, is my offering.
Welcome Home: One Jew's Visualization of the Afterlife
One instant ago, your body had weight and heat and heartbeat. And then, with one final long breath, all that is truly you rises like carbon bubbles of light, pressed to the ceiling.
You are being held from above, but for three days, you are aware only of that which is beneath you. Your body below is inert, yet persists in beckoning to you as a reminder of all that you have known in this lifetime: the sadness, the joy, pains, pleasures and the absolute ordinariness of everyday life. There have been good deeds and misdeeds, amends made and forgiveness tendered. All that you ever were pools in slow motion tableaux, while you hover weightless, invisible, yearning.
The sound of a book cover slamming shut above jolts your attention upwards. Not with fear or concern, but as awakening. Suddenly, you realize that there has, in truth, been no ceiling--no real separation between you and the Divine. Your yearning lifts and instantly, you are bathed with a warm, soothing waterfall of light cascading over you from the illuminated heavens above.
All that which has been holding you has become suddenly visible: a host of winged angels crowned by divine light all nodding their heads and lifting you and the closed book aloft. The accounting of your days has been completed and you have been found righteous.
Bathed in the flow of love, you are lifted to the realm of Olam haba, the eternal world to come -- a place infinitely familiar to you, as a dream newly remembered. You have been here before, suspended in the same flow of love and light, a place where there are no questions, regrets or concerns -- only the present moment in which everything suddenly makes perfect sense.
You have had moments of merger with the Divine like this before -- times on earth when it was as the mystics describe as if heaven reached down to kiss the earth. You have sat in awe of the sunrise and cried tears of joy at the birth of a child. You have embraced before the blazing fire and lost yourself in the stars. This merger feels natural, familiar, effortless.
But there is a surprise, something unexpected. In death, you have not disappeared -- becoming but one more molecule of light in the cosmic universe. Rather, you are still you. Only your concerns, questions and regrets have dissipated. Devoid of fear, all that remains is love and peace.
The angels -- the radiant Shechina -- are burning bright with joy, so full of love for you and for God that each has burst into flames, illuminating the pathway ahead. Turning your gaze forward, you see before you all those for whom you cared, come to greet you. Each face comes into sharp focus, as real as an outstretched hand, a hug, a kiss -- the best and highest moment of your life together on earth -- each with its distinctive hue, fragrance and tonality -- fully realized.
Reunited, you are beyond time and story, free to fully enjoy that which attracted you to one another in the first place: pure presence. This is the only reality now, and in fact, you now realize that this is the only truth that ever really mattered.