What Really Happens When We Die?
By Ezra Shanken
It feels very apropos to be writing about the Jewish view on death as Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of collective Jewish atonement when G-d decides who will be inscribed in the book of life for the next year.
A rabbi once told me that one of the purposes of the mitzvoth in the Torah is to allow Jews to suck the marrow out of life by giving them the framework to live a life of learning, meaning, and happiness. However there is always an end to that life and, as in most religions, when Jews move from this life to the next they are judged on their good deeds and their bad.
An image was once painted for me of two lines of dump trucks lined up far beyond the horizon, one filled with good deeds and the other bad. The hope is that there are more good-deed dump trucks than bad ones. I believe that heaven and hell are the proverbial carrot on a stick to motivate us to be the best we can be, so that our dump trucks reflect a good life. I don't live this life for the next; I live for what I can do in each moment. Every mitzvah that I do on earth not only goes into the dump truck but also leaves a little piece of good behind for future generations.
My father tells a story of a conversation he had with his father, a rabbi. My father asked him where he wanted to be buried, and my grandfather responded without missing a beat, "Surprise me." I guess that is where I am in my life when someone asks me if there is a heaven and hell. I think I would say, "Surprise me."
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Ezra S. Shanken is Senior Manager of the Young Adult Department and Major Gifts at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado and a co-founder of E-3 Events.