I don’t really know what happens after I die. With these very words I opened a Yom Kippur sermon some years back. Immediately afterward, a red-in-the-face listener invaded my personal space, his nose coming very close to mine. With a profoundly unpleasant series of staccato jabs to my chest with his forefinger he spat, I want my rabbi to know what will happen to me after I die.
As it turned out, in his mind his anxiety about death would have been lessened if his rabbi had certain knowledge that there is a hereafter, that dead is not actually dead and that the end is not actually the end. That he put the responsibility for knowing this on his rabbi is another story altogether.
As many of you well know, Jewish tradition spends far more time pondering the realities of this world as opposed to the mysteries of the next. Nonetheless, our pandemic has done a good job of putting our finitude front and center. But in truth, I don’t really know what happens after I die. I’m sure some will remember me for good, others not so much. I also know that sacred memory is an actuality; there is an existential reality to the tender way we hold the memory of people after they have died. Something of them is, in fact, in us. I also believe that life, my life has meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl teaches us that the assertion of meaning comes from within, not from a mountain and not from the deep.
We are amazed at the realities of science and evolution. We accept that viruses and pathogens and our human effort not to let them kill us represent a scientific and economic formula. Of course, COVID is not from God. Such religious postulations are toxic and give good religion a very bad name.
This spring, as the world creaks open like the Tin Man’s rusty jaw, the question before us is not what will happen to us after we die. The question before us is: What now? The answer, my friends, is simple and profound: Choose life, that you and your children may live. Just a few verses after we find these words in our Torah we learn how to keep our heads in the game: Be strong and courageous. Yes, I know, easier said than done. Who among us doesn’t need people who love us to nudge us when the waterline runs high? But that’s what friends are for.
Rabbi Marc L. Disick