The Five People I Want to Meet in Heaven
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Yizkor – Yom Kippur
October 8th, 2011
Perhaps the one question that I have been most asked during my career is:
"Rabbi, do Jews believe in Heaven and Hell?"
I answer them with the gamut of Jewish responses from the classical, Maimonidean and rationalist perspectives. The concepts of heaven and hell connect to larger theological questions about good and bad, reward and punishment, and the afterlife. We want to, need to believe that there is an eternal, everlasting reward for our struggles in our lifetime, that the injustices in this world are somehow addressed, even if in another reality, that life makes sense.
The description of heaven that I like the most is the imagery of metaphorically sitting around the table studying Torah with God for all eternity. It is something like my Talmud class, except that it never ends and we never grow old. And God has all the answers. It is a warm, comforting, secure dream. The true Jewish answer is: we won't know about heaven until we get there, wherever "there" might be. In this existence we can only speculate, fueled by vague notions in the Prophetic writings and the conjectures of the Rabbis contained in the Talmud, Midrash and mystical literature. Here, we just don't know.
Given that introduction, I call to your attention a wonderful book that was written some years ago by Mitch Albom entitled: "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." It is a wonderful story about lives that are intertwined without realizing it until afterwards, in heaven. Only there will the protagonist, Eddie, have his life explained to him. Only there will he find out whether his last act on earth, indeed whether his whole life, was a heroic success or a devastating failure. It is a fascinating book, 196 small pages, a quick read.
In the untitled page before the story begins, Albom writes the following:
"This book is dedicated to Edward Beitchman, my beloved uncle, who gave me my first concept of heaven. Every year, around the Thanksgiving table, he spoke of a night in the hospital when he awoke to see the souls of his departed loved ones sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for him. I never forgot that story. And I never forgot him.
"Everyone has an idea of heaven, as do most religions, and they should all be respected. The version represented here is only a guess, a wish, in some ways, that my uncle, and others like him – people who felt unimportant here on earth – realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved."
The book's title provoked me to thinking and I have adapted it slightly. The title of this sermon is: The Five people I want to meet in heaven. If we have the choice, if we can somehow arrange in advance who we will meet in heaven, of all the possibilities spanning the history of humanity, Jewish or not, current or ancient,
Who would you choose?
Why would you select those particular people?
What would you ask them?
What do you want to learn from them?
How will these people explain our lives to us?
While we live, can we, do we expect, that we will have mattered in this world?
I hope to provoke your thinking. I hope to provoke your conversation at the table after Yom Tov. You can share with me your choices via email. Here are mine, with the whys and the wherefores. They are all Jewish. When I thought about this sermon, I immediately knew the five. These are: The Five People I Want to Meet in Heaven.
1. I would like to meet our Patriarch Abraham, Avraham Avinu. Why did I choose him? If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't be here today. There would be no Jewish people, no Judaism. No chosen people. I see myself, my life, as a Jew, not the Rabbi part, as a link on a chain that stretches back to him. No Abraham, no me. I have so many questions for him.
How did you discover God, or, how did God discover you?
What was the "Aha" moment like?
Where you numbed, stunned, dazed?
What did God's voice sound like?
How did you know it was God speaking?
Was it actual words or something like ESP?
The Torah doesn't answer these questions, it just presents us with Abraham hearing what God was speaking, and asks us to make the same leap of faith. I want to know: what made Abraham leap? It will help mine. I have the Torah's text. I want to know about Abraham's experience. More questions:
How did you turn your back on the world you knew?
How did you leave home?
Weren't you concerned about sticking out like a 'sore thumb'?
It must have been strange being the only Jew in the world. Sometimes when I go places I feel like that too. Again, the Torah doesn't describe the feeling in his kishkes. That's what I want to know. What was churning on the inside? Did Avraham's heart go 'thump, thump, like mine? It will help my kishkes.
What did you think when you were walking up Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac?
Why didn't you say something to him?
How could you even imagine that God really wanted you to do this?
I have no idea how Avraham took even one step with his son. I have walked with our children and grandchildren, felt little hands in mine, and larger and larger as they have grown. I cannot fathom Avraham's trial, and yet, his image inspired millennium of Jews to sacrifice their lives, otherwise, our journey would have ended. I want to know of his faith that gave him the power to do this. I want to meet Avraham Avinu in heaven. I want to feel his faith.
2,3,4. I want to meet my maternal grandfather, Abraham Liebhoff maternal grandmother, Anna Liebhoff and paternal great-grandfather Harry Creditor. They all left Europe: Smilovitch, Russia, Bielsk, Poland, and Soroka, Moldova, respectively around 1900. It wasn't in vogue to ask these questions in their lifetimes. But I would like to know:
What it was like to live in the village of Smilovitch, the town of Soroka, and the shtetl of Bielsk? [I don't want the 'Fiddler-on-the-Roof' edition, but the daily lives that they led.]
Did you go to cheder?
What did you do in the 'pre-electronic' world?
How hard was it to be a Jew?
Were you persecuted?
How did you make the decision to leave your hometowns with such little knowledge of the outside world?
[My maternal grandparents were young and travelled by themselves.]
[My great-grandfather Harry came with several children and my great grandmother Bertha.] How did you have the guts to do that?
What did you expect about America?
What did you encounter?
[Grandma Anna rolled cigars and made umbrellas on the Lower East Side.] How did you face the crisis of having to work on Shabbat?
How did you remember to sing Lecha Dodi when you visited us in Belleville and came to Friday night services fifty years after leaving Europe?
I want to know all the details. Because of them, the seed of my family was planted in this country. Because they were contemporary "Abrahams and Sarahs" my family was in America and not Europe for the Shoah and survived. We got our names from them and we gave them to our children.
5. I want to meet my father. Maybe as much as I have questions for him, I wish to tell him about my life since he died in 1991. Then again, if heaven is heaven, maybe he has known all along. Even so, I want to tell him that especially at key junctures, I have acutely missed his presence. There has been an empty space next to me at the b'not mitzvah of Yonina and Tzeira, at all their graduations, Menachem's marriage and the birth of the three grandchildren, particularly Moshe who carries his name, Tzvi. I have looked at the raspberry plants which came from his garden and wondered what he might be thinking about them transplanted to Virginia. In heaven, I get to know. Does not everyone have empty spaces?
But I have questions for my father.
What was it like growing up in Brooklyn, having to defend yourself against the anti-Semitic gangs? [He told me that they existed, and I saw from his pictures that he was quite a strong, tough guy, but I don't know his story. I never asked. He never told.]
[He was a volunteer in the Orphan Home of Brooklyn, where he met my mother who was also a volunteer there.] What were you doing there?
What did you think when you saw your wife-to-be for the first time?
Was it an "aha' moment? [I think of the video with Andy Griffith for the song "Waiting on a Woman" that he and I can sit on a bench in heaven and he will tell me about those years, and courting my mother. Just that my father wouldn't be caught dead in a white suit. Not here. Not there. Neither would I.]
But most of all, I want to know:
How did you have the courage and dignity to live when you knew that you were dying?
[My father was a well read man. He understood his fight with cancer and yet never complained, never kvetched, never railed against the injustice in his life, that he had been just briefly retired before it struck and lived but one more year. He did not speak of it to me or anyone else, and we respected his privacy not to pry, fearing that we might somehow disturb the equilibrium that he maintained. But I want to know:
How did you take each step? [I learned the lessons by watching him that enabled me to be a Rabbi, to stand with others as they fought and crossed over to the other side. Yet he was silent. All his thoughts he kept to himself and I loved him too much to ask. Perhaps I was afraid of the answer. Perhaps I was afraid to make him cry. It wasn't my right. But in heaven, I would like to ask him, I would like to know:
How did you do it?
I need to know before it is too late.
These are my five.
I don't have the foggiest notion if I will meet these five people in heaven, or if I will meet anyone at all. It could just be "lights out." I hope not. I wish to believe, I believe, that I will meet these people. I accept the faith that there is a metaphysical place that is not discernable by test tube and telescope where neshamas exist forever. And I hope that in the right time, may it be far, far away, I will merit to be there too and meet these people and ask them these questions. There is an infinite list that I could have proposed, but I selected these five because they have always captivated me. Just this very speculation on whom to ask and what to ask has been instructive and enlightening. It touches the innermost hidden recesses of my heart, my very being. These are my core questions. They speak to my essence. Though I really want the answers, the questions themselves help me organize my life. At this juncture writing this sermon has help me reflect on the meaning and purpose of the life that I have lived, the family I have created, the service I have done as a Rabbi. Does all this have eternal meaning or is it over when I die?
What is your essence, hiddenmost, innermost self?
When you get to heaven, who do you want to meet?
What key questions do you want to ask them?
Will the answers make a difference in you?
Heaven may come,
Will contemplating these questions now make you a better person in this life?
I hope so. Composing this sermon made a difference for me.
It gave me clarity. It gave me focus. It gave me hope.
In traditional texts of the Yizkor prayer it said that we recited Yizkor for the "Illuyi haNeshama" – for the "illumination of the soul" of the deceased, that it may be ever closer to God, and His radiance. Today I say Yizkor for my father and family members, for members of our congregation who have died. I recite it not only for "illuyi nishmotam," "their illumination," but for mine, for ours. Perhaps in contemplating special people in our lives and their core teachings that are eternal, we will live more wisely, more richly. In reflecting upon theirs, we will be illuminated.
Yizkor Elohim. May God remember. And here, may we. And in heaven, may they. Amen.