I have a friend named Rachel who is slowly dying of cancer. She is very bright and we often have stimulating intellectual conversations together. Although Rachel does not consider herself to be very “bright,” she is one sharp cookie! Rachel is slowly coming to terms with her mortality, as we all will, sooner or later. Here is a copy of an email correspondence I had with her. Perhaps others who are reading this little article of mine, might find some solace to the pastoral and spiritual issues it raises:
“Now with respect to your latest question regarding reward and punishment, I personally believe in an afterlife; the “near-death experience” offers what may be a glimpse of such a reality; indeed, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in his Republic (507b–509c) was probably a Greek depiction of such an experience; I think God’s revelation to Job may have also been such an experience.
So, to answer your question more clearly, Ecclesiastes 12:7 says it best, “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” as well as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever ” (Psa. 23:6). Yes, we are more than mere worm food, but I have often wondered: What if there is no Afterlife? Some religious systems in Buddhism and Hinduism subscribe to such a concept; I present the problem to my dying congregants in the following terms–a classical Talmudic mah nafshach with a dash of Pascalian logic:
If there is an afterlife, which I strongly and personally believe, you will certainly know about it soon enough. If there is NO afterlife, then you will never know the difference and simply exist as a thought of the Divine Mind. Some religious and mystical systems might think of that as Nirvana or B’tul HaYesh (nullification of the Self–according to Hassidut), either way I am at peace with whatever the prospect may be–you should too. Frankly, I expect to see my father and mother, along with many relatives and friends I have known over the years. In the Yizkor (Memorial Prayers) of the holidays, I often see them coming to me in an aura of light. If we exist as a thought of God, then I believe we are never anything less than what were here–in this world–at our very best.
Think you are not such an intellectual? I personally admire people who have an insatiable desire for knowledge, along with folks who really have a reverence for life, who treat people with kindness for the most part. I suspect you are a deeply religious person from this perspective, and in such an individual–there you will find true wisdom. The German philosopher Heidegger (despite his brilliant intellect), was still a creep– an unapologetic Nazi till the end. Yom HaShoah teaches us that “First Philosophy” to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, must not be based on metaphysics as the philosophers of old believed, but upon ethics, as Emmanuel Levinas stresses over and over again. Levinas, I might add, was a survivor who lost many family members to the Nazis. He’s also my favorite modern Litvak, while Buber is my most modern favorite Hasid.
Also, please, don’t sell yourself short. For me, it is time to davin and reflect upon some of these issues I have raised with you, as well as to myself.”