What Really Happens When We Die?
By Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez
When your family business is a Jewish mortuary/funeral home, death and dying are not only topics of conversation but also of thought. As such, "what happens when you die" has long been a question in my internal and external dialogue. I know more about Jewish burial rights than any of my peers, I appreciate the Jewish traditions around death and dying, and I am very comfortable addressing of end-of-life issues.
However, no matter how knowledgeable one may be about the Jewish traditions around death, it does not inherently mean we know what happens when we die. While Judaism specifically says that there is a concept of heaven and hell, it is not as clearly defined as in other mainstream religions. In fact, many Jews will tell you we don't believe in hell at all -- though that is a misinterpretation that I cannot address in such a brief piece.
My favorite description of the Jewish view of the afterlife was from a rabbi I knew in college. This rabbi explained that he reads the texts to mean that one's closeness with God affects one's comfort level in the singular space we call the afterlife. There is a story he told that all of heaven and hell is one room and at the front of it a great rabbi is teaching. For those who know who he is, it is an amazing experience and they experience great awe at being in his presence. For those who do not know who he is, it is a boring, hellacious experience.
I believe we, as Jews, need to live in such a way that we are comfortable in this room of amazing learning, ensuring that we learn voraciously while living a good life so we can truly appreciate not only what may lie ahead but what does lay at our feet now.
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