August 22, 2019

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Do you believe in heaven? If you have read certain books by Mitch Albom (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven” or “The First Phone Call from Heaven”); if you have seen the movies “Waiting for Mr. Jordan” or “Ghost”; if you have attended a séance; or if you dutifully recite Kaddish for a deceased relative, then chances are you accept the existence of the olam ha-ba (the world to come).

Even if the Torah emphasizes immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments rather than abstract, future ones, we like to think that the results of performing good deeds will lead to a comfortable place in the world to come. No one, at least to my knowledge, has ever come back to tell us about the afterlife, and for many years I remained quite skeptical about the existence of this paradise. 

Rabbinic sages have many things to say about olam ha-ba. In early scripture, man’s stay on Earth is followed by a descent to Sheol, which according to Wikipedia, is defined as “a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous.” The patriarch Jacob, upon hearing that his son Joseph had been maimed and killed by a wild beast, moaned that he “would go down in grief to his son in Sheol” (Genesis 37:35). Isaiah (14:3–21) and Ezekiel (31:15–18; 32:17–32). Picture it as a dreary, gloomy place, a land of the shades (Isaiah 26:19). In Job (17:13–16) it is portrayed as an abode of worms and decay.

Latter-day sages have a different view of the “afterlife.” Many believe it to be a resting place for the eternal soul. The Zohar describes heaven as a place of spiritual purification for souls.

There is an old story about two friends, Harry and Joseph, who loved baseball. In their youth, they played baseball almost every day. The watched the games on TV, listened to the games on the radio, and read every story that was printed about baseball in their local paper. As the years went by, Harry and Joseph remained good friends and never lost their love of the game. 

One sad day, Joseph died, and Harry was left without his best friend. A few months went by, and then Harry had a strange dream. In a vision, he saw his old friend Joe wearing the baseball uniform of their favorite team. Harry called out to Joe. Harry said, “Joe, where are you?”

Joe replied, “Hello, Harry. I’m in heaven now.”

Harry asked, “What’s it like being in heaven?”

“Well, Harry,” Joe answered in a mournful voice, “I have good and bad news …”

“Please, tell me the good news,” Harry said. 

“The good news is that in heaven, we play baseball every day, sometimes even twice a day.”

“That sounds fantastic, but what’s the bad news?” Harry asked.

“You’re pitching tomorrow,” replied Joe.

Now that’s a bad joke. … But let me now recount a couple of true stories that may make you think twice about the olam ha-ba.

My grandmother once told me a story about her friend. This friend had a daughter who believed in the occult and a granddaughter who did not. The daughter (let’s call her Miriam) made an appointment to see a psychic, or as I would call it, a scam artist. She invited her very skeptical daughter (named Ruthie) to come along. Reluctantly, or perhaps in the hope of unmasking this charlatan to her mother, Ruthie decided to join Miriam at the consultation.

Latter-day sages have a different view of the “afterlife.” Many believe it to be a resting place for the eternal soul.

Of course, the psychic had nothing but good things to say about Miriam’s future, but then she turned to Ruthie and said that she felt her skepticism. 

“That’s OK,” the psychic said. “I won’t ask you to leave because you don’t believe in me. I just have one thing to tell you, and you can choose to believe it or not. I see that you have a guardian angel. It is a tall, bearded man, smoking a pipe and wearing the uniform of an admiral or ship’s captain. The man has been dead for many years, but his spirit appears to be watching over you. Go in peace.”

Ruthie laughed off the whole thing. “What a waste of time,” she complained to her mother on the way home. 

A few weeks later, Ruthie went to visit her grandmother. As they shared a bowl of steaming chicken noodle soup, Ruthie recounted the story of the “guardian angel” to her bubbe. When she described the man, her grandmother started to cry. 

“What’s wrong, Bubbe?” a confused Ruthie asked.

Her grandmother went down to the basement and retrieved an old picture frame. In it was a faded photo of a tall, bearded man, smoking a pipe and dressed in a captain’s uniform. “This man was my first love,” Ruthie’s grandmother explained. “Sixty years ago, he was lost at sea.”

Still skeptical, dear readers? Well here is another story, a little closer to home. I am a Scrabble fanatic. In fact, I am so addicted to this game of words, that I play computer Scrabble almost every night. Mostly I play against the expert computer opponent, aptly called “Maven,” and I rarely win. 

My mother died on the 1st of Av in 2009. Every year on that date, I join the minyan at the synagogue to recite the Kaddish. It is said that by reciting Kaddish for the departed soul, you insure to the merit of the deceased in the eyes of God. Three years after my mother died, I made a grave (excuse the pun) scheduling error. I was given an appointment for a colonoscopy on the same day as my mother’s yahrzeit. Changing the appointment would have been very difficult and I wouldn’t be able to get another until almost one year later.  

Preparation for a colonoscopy requires the patient to ingest a series of unpleasant cocktails that cause quite a commotion in the bowels. One cannot go very far from the commode during the night before the procedure. So, instead of going to shul to recite the Kaddish, I stayed at home, and to pass the time, played computer Scrabble. 

As night fell, I played my word game and waited for the computer to respond. When I saw the word that the computer played, I nearly fell off my chair. It was a word that I had never seen before on the Scrabble board, nor have I seen since. The word that the computer played was “YAHRZEIT”! 

Was someone sending me a message? Was my mother continuing to dish out “Jewish guilt” from her new home? Such are the mysteries of the afterlife. 

While lunching in our favorite barbecued chicken restaurant, my brother-in-law and I once had a serious discussion about life after death. He was not a religious man, but he believed in the soul being eternal and that somehow the dead could communicate with the living. We made a pact then and there that whoever goes first would try to get a message to the survivor. 

Well, dear reader, to my dismay, it has been almost two years since my cherished brother-in-law died, and I am still waiting for a text, phone call or email.


Paul Starr is a recently retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation.