There is a beautiful picture of my daughter Batsheva, zl, that sits on a credenza in my family room. The top shelf is filled with all sorts of tchotchkes representing our travels. My daughter loved to travel and it is fitting that she presides over the turtles, stuffed animals from Bermuda and Costa Rica, a porcelain house from Bermuda, and a replica of a Red Devil bus, Diablos Rojos, from Panama. So many of the souvenirs are from places she did not live long enough to see, but I imagine her there on those vacations, enjoying the view, gliding on the surf, or hamming it up with her siblings.
The picture, taken for her senior year of high school, is of her casually relaxing on a chair. Her beautiful red hair is glistening and she is looking at you directly in the eye, exuding an air of confidence and compassion. It is a snapshot of her soul, her very essence.
I often talk to the photo to tell her what’s going on in our family, myself and the world. The energy that emanates from the photo makes it feel as if I am truly talking to her. But I know she isn’t in the photograph. I can’t just jump inside it and grab her in my arms. But even though I rationally understand that her whereabouts are not sitting on a table surrounded by memorabilia, I don’t think she isn’t anywhere either. I don’t cry out to her and say ‘wherever you are,’ I believe she is in Heaven, Olam HaBah – the world to come, Olam HaEmet – the true world, Gan Eden גן עדן. And I believe she is cared for by her relatives that are with her and finds herself under the protective wing of the Shechinah, תחת כנפי השכינה.
My strong conviction is very often met with ‘ do you really believe that?’ ‘How can you believe in something that you cannot prove exists?’
So, first, why do I have faith that my daughter is in a truly ‘Good Place’, protected by G-d and surrounded by loved ones? Our tradition from biblical to rabbinic to modern-day, describes, sometimes in elegant, fantastical detail, not only the place but who is there and what they do in that space.
The idea that when we leave this world, we will be reunited with loved ones in the next can be inferred from various places in Biblical narrative. Avraham (Genesis 49:29) speaks of his impending demise as a time where he will be gathered to his kin:
God tell Moses in Numbers, 27:13, that he ‘…will be gathered to his people…’
King Solomon’s death is described as sleeping with his fathers- (Melachim I 11:43)
…וַיִּשְׁכַּ֤ב שְׁלֹמֹה֙ עִם־אֲבֹתָ֔יו…
How Heaven looks and feels is debated by the Rabbis but suffice it to say:
‘Rav was wont to say: The World-to-Come is not like this world. In the World-to-Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence…’ (Berkhot 17a)
The Rabbis even imagine what God’s schedule is in this otherworldly place. God engages with Torah study, adjudicates divine justice, plays with the Leviathan or alternatively, (Avodah Zara 3b) in the fourth hour:
‘…He sits and teaches Torah to schoolchildren…’
…יושב ומלמד תינוקות של בית רבן תורה..
Heaven then is a place where the deceased are surrounded by loved ones, feel no pain or need, and are cared for directly by the Almighty.
Many of the discussions of Olam HaBah are co-mingled with the idea of Olam HaBah, the next best world promised in the Messianic era. The Midrash Tankhuma, however, dispels that notion by stating that there will indeed be a Messianic utopia in the future but the righteous who have departed will ‘…immediately ascend and stand in that place.’ ( Midrash Tankhuman, Vayikra 8).
‘מִיָּד עוֹלִים וְעוֹמְדִים בְּמַעֲלָה זוֹ,…’
And yes, it is true that I cannot prove that such a place exists, but what I can do is attest to my undying love and devotion to my child. I can prove to you that the relationship with my child continues. And I believe in this place, even without objective proof, for I know that I am still having loving experiences with my daughter. And it is true, the relationship looks different and may seem to be one-sided and not very dynamic. Heaven, in all its meanings and understandings, allows me to maintain a connection to my daughter. It provides a cognitive center for all my prayers and connections to her and about her and any smile or wink I might send her way. I don’t have to prove Heaven’s existence empirically. I only need to say without reservation: I love my daughter.
We will very soon be coming together on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. On the day that we pray that God move from his chair of strict justice, din, and move to his chair of rachamim, compassion and mercy, we also add the Yizkor prayer. There are many different approaches as to why we recite Yizkor before Mussaf on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ztz’l in his commentary on the Makhzor notes:
‘Those we remember live on in us: in words, gestures, a smile there, an act of kindness there, that we would not have done had that person not left their mark on our lives…’
(Koren, Yom Kippur Mahzor, note p. 758)
But while we would like the yichus of our dearly departed to help us – and most of us need as much help as we can get – perhaps it’s not their clout that we are really seeking. Perhaps it is not only their past acts inspiring us but the current relationship as well.
When I first started visiting my daughter at the cemetery, in the overwhelm, all I could utter, over and over, was ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ If I didn’t think our relationship was continuing, I wouldn’t have been asking for her forgiveness. We invoke our dearly loved ones to do the work that we need to do each year with our living relatives. We need to do that hard process of repairing connections with those around us and those who are important to us, so we can reboot those relationships and begin the year anew. That work needs to be done every year, for every important relationship in your life, for those in this world and the next.
Our tradition of Heaven affords us a place to center those thoughts and feelings. It is a point beyond space and time to concentrate your connection and ultimately to let your love continue to grow and flourish, albeit in a different way. This paradise, this Gan Eden, not only lets me direct my devotion to my daughter, but also allows for the possibly of her sending her love to me.
I can’t tell you where in the universe Olam HaBah is, but my daughter is there.
And from time to time, I allow myself to feel her love from that place coming down to me.