Shavuot Second Day
By Batya Ordin, May 27, 2023
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach. I’d like to speak about yesterday’s Haftorah, Ezekiel’s vision of the divine Glory, which has intrigued me for a long time.
Those of you who know me, know that I am a pretty down-to-Earth person. I like to think of myself as someone involved more in the “pots and pans” of Judaism rather than the esoteric. But to quote my favorite television show, today I would like to “boldly go where no one has gone before”. I’m going to speak about the afterlife.
My interest in this topic began several years ago when sadly, my Orthodox friend and neighbor lost her grown daughter after a long bout with cancer. She loaned me a book by Dr. Brian Weiss, head of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. His book, Many Lives, Many Masters, is a study on the subject of reincarnation. For two or three years, she and I passed dozens of books on related topics back and forth across the street. These books were written by respected professionals: physicians, scientists, psychiatrists, academics, physicists, and Rabbis and I found this subject matter very compelling.
Let me share with you a story of two elderly friends: Moishie and Chaim. They made a pact that whoever passes away first would come back and tell the other what it’s like. Eventually, Moishie passes away. Sometime later, to his surprise, Chaim hears his name being called.
“Moishele, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s really me.”
“So, nu,” asks Chaim. “What’s it like?”
“Oy…It’s beautiful. There are birds chirping. The sky is blue with light fluffy clouds floating by. There is a lake with crystal clear water, rolling hills, green grass.”
“And Moishele, what do you do all day?”
“Well, I get up, I eat a piece of fruit from the tree, I go for a walk, I have sex, I take a nap.”
“Wow, so that’s Heaven”.
“Heaven? What Heaven? I’m a moose in Idaho!”
Ezekiel’s vision begins with a description of four celestial creatures holding up the throne of God. These creatures defy the imagination with four animal faces each, wings, human hands, spinning wheels below them, the rims of which are covered with eyes.
Though these images are astonishing, the idea of celestial creatures is not unfamiliar to us. Every Shabbat morning during Shacharit we recite “El Adon”, the last line of which states “Tiferet U’Gedulah, Serafim Ve’ofanim Ve’chayot Hakodesh”. “The Serafim, Ofanim, and [other] Holy Creatures declare God’s wonder and greatness.” These images of holy creatures that Ezekiel describes are followed by his description of the Presence of God.
Was Ezekiel hallucinating? Dreaming? Too much THC?
Or…could this have been an actual glimpse into the spiritual realm?
In today’s world with medical advances such as CPR and defibrillators, we have brought people back from death. In a time where data is shared globally, we have many thousands of accounts of what happens to people between the time they are pronounced clinically dead and the time they are resuscitated. This can be just a few minutes or much, much longer. From a strict medical standpoint, these people should have seen or felt nothing. Surprisingly, they did not experience a black nothingness, but to the contrary, a very rich, vivid procession of sensations which they believe is a visit to the spiritual realm. There are consistent key components to near-death experiences, and amazingly, they seem to corroborate much of Ezekiel’s account.
Let’s explore the “near-death experience” further. The term was coined in 1975 by Dr. Raymond Moody, a physician at the University of Virginia, in his groundbreaking book, “Life After Life”. The near-death experience crosses all geographic, socio-economic, religious, gender, age and cultural boundaries. Dr. Melvin Morse, a Seattle pediatrician, published a study he conducted of young children between ages 3 and 16 who had technically died and had been resuscitated. The children reported remarkably similar experiences to the adults. Research estimates that 400 million people worldwide have had a Near Death Experience. That’s 5% of 8 billion people.
Though there are variations, a near-death experience may contain many or all of these features:
A person, say, has a heart attack… The chest pain is excruciating, and he passes out. What seems like moments later, he awakens to find himself floating above his body, where he watches the medical team administering CPR. He tries to communicate with them, but it becomes obvious that they can’t hear him. Suddenly, a dark tunnel appears…and he finds himself zooming up the tunnel with the whooshing sound of speed.
His trip ends in a garden…glowing with unearthly light. He looks at his own hands and realizes that he too is composed of light. Relatives and friends who had died earlier approach him. They are glowing too. All of them are happy to see him. They express their feelings nonverbally with their warmth. A master Being of Light appears. He is so bright and loving that the visitor feels drawn to him. With more unconditional love, caring, feelings of peace and joy than this visitor had ever felt from anyone on Earth, the master Being of Light engulfs him with his Presence.
He is then taken on a three-dimensional review of his life. In addition to experiencing the way he felt during each event shown, the visitor feels every emotion he caused others to feel by his or her actions. The Being of Light compassionately communicates to the person what he did right and wrong and indicates things he might do better in the future.
The person wants this heavenly experience to go on forever. He doesn’t want to leave the bosom of the Being of Light, but he is told he must return to his body. That it isn’t his time yet. Suddenly, he feels himself sucked back into his own body. The pain of his injuries returns. His near-death experience significantly transforms him into a changed person. The type-A behavior that made him edgy, angry, or a workaholic is now gone. Replacing these traits is a greater concern for others, lack of fear of death, a thirst for knowledge, less concern for material goods, and an enhanced appreciation for life.
How do we explain all of this? Could they be hallucinations? A lack of oxygen in a dying brain? The brain simply shutting itself down? Medications? The research disproves all of these alternative theories.
If a person is looking down onto their own body, seeing, hearing, thinking, yet the brain is in a state of clinical death, where are these perceptual and cognitive activities taking place? This is clear evidence for the existence of a transcendental part of the human being. It points to the existence of a soul.
When people who are blind from birth have a near-death experience, they report “seeing” both this world and the next. Dr. Kenneth Ring, Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, has done research on near-death experiences of the blind. Those who died in surgery, for example, were asked to describe the surgery room, the hospital and other environmental factors, which a blind person would not be able to do. They were blind before their death and they are blind after resuscitation, yet during the interim period some can describe what only a sighted person can perceive. Vision can be impaired in the physical body, but when the soul is separated from the body, this impediment is removed because the soul does not depend on the physical body for vision. The soul is perfect even if the body is impaired.
From his book, “Does the Soul Survive?” by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Ya’akov Astor’s book “Soul Searching”, I learned that throughout Jewish history, many opinions emerged on the nature of the world to come, with no one theory becoming dogma. Jewish ideas about the afterlife have never been static. The intergenerational debate between sages, while varying in time and place, shared a consensus that the soul survives this Earthly plane of existence. From Ecclesiastes, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was and the spirit, or ruach, returns to God who bestowed it”.
Nearly every aspect of the near-death experience has parallels in Jewish tradition. Let’s look at a few of the correlations:
Immediately after death, a person finds him or herself floating above their body. Our tradition teaches that “for three days, the soul hovers over the body”. The Talmud also states “the dead one knows all that is said in its presence until the grave is filled in.” Our entire mourning and burial rituals are based on the assumption that the soul is present. This is why, for example, the body is watched over before burial and never left alone. The soul departs and returns at various stages which coincide with the stages of mourning…7 days of Shiva, 30 days of Shloshim, and a year.
What about being greeted warmly by our departed family members? The death of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Aaron, and Moses are described with the conspicuous phrase “and he was gathered to his people.” Abraham was the first of the patriarchs to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Who, then, was he gathered to? Obviously, the phrase “gathered to his people” cannot be talking about the physical burial location. Similarly, Aaron and Moses were buried alone, and still it says that each was “gathered to his people.” The Midrash states explicitly: “All souls go forth and are gathered each one’s soul to the generation of his fathers and to his people…when the soul goes forth from the body, then the righteous come to meet them and say ‘Come unto Peace’.”
Now, the life review: Jewish tradition speaks of the “sefer hachaim”, the Book of Life, where all deeds are recorded. This is a primary focus of our High Holiday liturgy. The Talmud states that a person’s own soul testifies at one’s judgment after death. According to the near-death accounts, it’s not a literal book of life, but more like a 3D sensa-round movie that is played where each event in a person’s life is re-experienced in the fullest detail. It is lovingly presented and experienced as a learning opportunity.
Most importantly, it is seeing the Being of Light that connects the near-death experience with Ezekiel’s vision. In a Midrash commenting on Shemot, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, he was told that “Man cannot see me and live; however, when he ceases to live here [i.e., when he dies], he will see Me.”
Let’s look at Ezekiel’s description of the presence of God in v. 22:
“Above the heads of the [celestial] creatures was a form: an expanse with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal was spread out above their heads.”
“Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber – what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about Him. Like the appearance of the rainbow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord.”
In his description of the presence of God, Ezekiel seems to be searching for words to describe the intensity of the light. People who have returned from clinical death have also expressed the inadequacy of words to describe the light they encountered. In the following two near-death accounts, listen for the same kind of struggle for words that Ezekiel seemed to have:
“At first, I became aware of beautiful colors which were all the colors of the rainbow. They were magnified in crystallized light and beamed with a brilliance in every direction. It was as if all this light was coming at me through a prism made by a most beautiful and purified diamond, and yet at the same time it was as if I were in its center…even now when I try to describe something so beautiful, I am mute with awe. There are no words in any language to describe such grandeur.”
And in a second account, “In the middle of one circle was a most beautiful being…I was filled with an intense feeling of joy and love. I had the overpowering feeling that I was in the presence of the source of my life and perhaps even my creator. In spite of the tremendous awe it inspired, I felt I knew this being extremely well. With all my heart I wanted to embrace and melt into it as if we were one….”
Before we say Yizkor in a few moments, let us consider both Ezekiel’s description of the Presence of the Divine, along with accounts of near-death experiences. When someone dies, we often say they have gone “to their eternal rest”. If we accept the idea that we merge with the Divine light of unconditional love, then we can take comfort that our loved ones are experiencing that indescribable love and peace after leaving this world.
As Jews, we do not long to expedite our reunion with the Divine Light. We are here now to experience all that God has given us in this Earthly world. But when it is time for me to go, I hope that I will merge with Ezekiel’s brilliant light of God’s presence and unconditional love and not discover myself as a moose in Idaho.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.
Astor, Yaakov, Soul Searching
Sonsino, Rifat and Syme, Daniel B, What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death
Spitz, Rabbi Elie Kaplan, Does the Soul Survive?
Afterlife and Lessons Learned
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth and David Kessler, Life Lessons
Chopra, Deepak, Life After Death
Near-Death Research: (www.IANDS.org is a good resource)
Atwater, P.M.H., The New Children and Near-Death Experiences
Atwater, P.M.H., Beyond the Light: What Isn’t Being Said About Near- Death Experience: from Visions of Heaven to Glimpses of Hell
Atwater, P.M.H., Coming Back To Life: The After-Effects of the Near-Death Experience
Moody, Raymond A., M.D., Life After Life
Morse, Melvin, M.D., Closer to the Light, Learning from Children’s Near-Death Experiences
Morse, Melvin, M.D., Transformed By the Light
Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-death Experience
Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Life at Death, A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience
Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind
Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Heading Toward Omega, In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience
Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., A Near-Death Researcher’s Notebook
Personal Near-Death Accounts
Alexander, Eben, M.D., Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife
Atwater, P.M.H., We Live Forever, The Real Truth about Death
Besteman, Marvin J., My Journey to Heaven, What I Saw and How It Changed my Life
Brinkley, Dannion, Saved by the Light
Eadie, Betty J., Embraced by the Light
McVea, Crystal, Waking Up in Heaven
Neal, Mary C., M.D. To Heaven and Back, A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again
Piper, Don, 90 Minutes in Heaven
Reincarnation and Past Life Regression
Weiss, Brian L., Many Lives, Many Masters
Weiss, Brian L., Messages from the Masters, Tapping into the Power of Love
Weiss, Brian L., Only Love is Real
Weiss, Brian L., Same Soul, Many Bodies, Discover the Healing Power of Future Lives Through Progression Therapy
Kessler, David, Visions, Trips and Crowded Rooms, Who and What You See Before You Die
Moody, Raymond, Jr., M.D., Life After Loss, Conquering Grief and Finding Hope
Morse, Melvin, M.D., Parting Visions, Uses and Meanings of Pre-Death, Psychic, and Spiritual Experiences
Morse, Melvin, M.D., Where God Lives, The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains are Linked to the Universe
Schroeder, Gerald L., The Hidden Face of God, Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth
Schroeder, Gerald L., The Science of God, The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom
Siegel, Bernie S., M.D., Love, Medicine and Miracles, Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients