Dear B’nai Shalom members, families, and friends:

I hope and trust you all had a happy Tu Bishvat, the most recent of our Jewish holidays. If you were fortunate enough to participate in a Tu Bishvat Seder, you may have the joy of sharing your experience with the many who likely did not have the chance to do so.

In this month’s bulletin, I would like to focus on a different component of Judaism that is not necessarily tied to halacha, Jewish law and the manner and style in which, and by which, we fulfill and comply with specific mitzvot from the Torah. Rather, I would like to elucidate aspects of hashkafah, Jewish thought and philosophy, many points of which may not be known to large portions of the Jewish community. These topics would almost certainly not be known by the wider non-Jewish community.

There tend to be many questions about “what happens when we die,” what kind of world do our souls look forward to? What kind of existence do the souls of our loved ones continue to exist in, and what do we believe, according to Jewish tradition, as far as a “world yet to come?”

Unlike what I have heard from many who truly believe that which they have concluded concerning the “afterlife” for Jews, we Jews firmly and fervently believe in a world to come and work hard to earn our place in that existence.

Tradition teaches us that when HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed be He, recalls us to heaven at the end of our allotted time here in THIS world, he judges our lives, our conduct, our speech, behavior, and our levels of goodness, kindness, and decency before He makes a decision concerning our ultimate fate.

It is for this reason that we continually recite the “Kale Maleh Rachamim” prayer at a funeral service and again on the yahrtzeits of our loved ones and on Yizkor occasions. We pray for Hashem to judge our loved ones with mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, to allow our departed family members to be worthy of a honorable place in repose — literally the Ribono Shel Olam permitting our loved ones to “rest in peace in the highest levels of heaven.”

Once having left this world, the “land of the living,” we believe our family members are in an “Olam Shel Neshamot,” a world of existing souls where they continue to monitor OUR lives and the way we continue to conduct ourselves here, in the world of physical beings.

In this way, working hard to gain their heavenly approval from their new celestial locations, we append the way we think, act, and respond, doing our best to get their attention in the most positive way. We give every effort to continue to make them proud of us and to allow them to “shep nachas,” to attain a high level of pride and joy in front of all the other souls gathered in that grand existence.

There is a widespread belief and tradition that with every recitation of the Kaddish prayer being said in the memory of our departed loved ones, the souls of our heavenly family members continue to ascend higher and higher towards the highpoint location of Gan Aden, the paradise in the skies of the secondary location of the Garden of Eden. You may be familiar with the concept and expression of wishing the soul of one who died to receive “aliyah bashamayim,” a continual climbing higher and higher in the heavens among the souls of all who have departed this world.

We also ask Hashem to allow our relatives in heaven to act as a “Meileitz Yosher,” a heavenly intermediary, one who speaks on our behalf as a heavenly advocate for those of us here, still in the land of the living. Even though Judaism has a clear theological concept that we need no intermediary between us and Hashem – that we have a clear, direct “line” between us and our Heavenly Father, nonetheless, we feel we could “always use a good word” said on our behalf from those who are closest to Hashem, already there in the realm of Hashem’s domain.

In addition, as Jews, we do not believe in the concept of heaven and hell. While we work hard to deserve to be in as high a level as possible in the strata of heaven, the concept of a burning, devil-filled territory (often depicted by artists and sculptors) is one foreign to Jewish thought.

Along these lines, however, there is the Yiddish, somewhat “bubbie-maiseh” driven concept of deceased individuals ending up in what is typically known as “GaHENem,” a hellish, evil site, where for years, our European, shtetl-living ancestors shuddered at the thought of a fate destined for this sinister conclusion.

The name “Gahenem” likely comes from a Biblically-driven actual setting known as “Gae Chinom,” the “Valley of Chinom,” known to be a place of evil and widespread wickedness.

Finally, because we believe that WE, here in the land of the living, control the upward (or G-d forbid, decline…) of our loved ones in their heavenly perches, since WE perform mitzvot HERE, and they do not and CANNOT, we believe they benefit every time we perform an act of kindness or goodness.

It is for this reason that we typically accompany a monetary contribution to a worthy tzedakah when we say Kaddish for a departed loved one or on the occasion of their yahrtzeit. Doing this act of kindness is, in itself, a performance of thoughtfulness and selflessness, giving willingly of our means to help the next one.

May we all continue to perform mitzvot and maasim tovim, the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments and deeds of goodness and kindness such that our loved ones continue to feel pride and joy in us, making them proud in front of all the other souls in their environs.

And certainly by our continued acts of maasim tovim, we make OUR existence, right here, in the Olam HaZeh, THIS world, a contributing factor to making the world a far better place than it is. We could certainly use this and we know the world as it is, could mightily benefit from this as well.

With Torah blessings,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin