As the Israelites went forth from slavery to freedom, the Torah emphasizes that they fulfilled a promise that had been made generations earlier: “they carried Joseph’s bones with them as they went forth.” But the word for “bones” can also be translated as “essence.” The idea is that the people carried Joseph’s influence and his visions with them as they went forth.
I am often asked: “What do we Jews believe about life after death?” And even as I have responded to that question many times, at this moment it has special meaning to me as I am about to light a Yahrzeit candle in memory of my mother who passed away twenty-three years ago.
We do not have but one belief; we have numerous notions of what may be beyond this life. Yes, there is a traditional belief that at the time of the appearance of the Messiah, that there will be a physical resurrection of the death which will begin with those who are buried in Jerusalem.
Another traditional belief contends that the soul comes back to earth in different bodies until it gains eternal life for itself. This is achieved, taught our sages, through deeds of loving-kindness and bringing goodness to our world.
Still another belief suggests that while the physical body ceases to exist, the “essence” or the soul does live on in some way that we are not given to fathom. We speak of the “World to Come,” even as we are not given to understand the nature of that existence.
And others reject all of these beliefs, accepting that we live on through the lessons and influence that we leave behind. That we live on, not through what we achieved or accumulated, but through what we gave of ourselves to the people in our lives.
What do I believe? I keep coming back to the observation of Albert Einstein: “that there are two ways to live: one is to believe that nothing is a miracle, while the other way is to believe that everything is a miracle.” I do accept that notion that life is filled with so-called miracles that we are not given to understand. And so I do believe that something of us does live on to bless and enrich those whose lives we have touched and continue to touch.
I write these words on the twenty-third Yahrzeit of my mother’s passing. A memorial flame burns in my home today, even as I find myself thinking of my mother so often. I think of ways in which she gave of herself to me and my family. I am grateful for all of it, even as I feel some sadness for all that she missed, especially the growth of my children and the birth of my grandchildren–one of whom carries her name. I often feel her influence and her blessing, and can only hope that I might be worthy of the hopes that she had for me and for all of us who were so dear to her.