In the last lines of the Torah, God shows Moshe the promised land and tells him that after his death, He will fulfill His promise to His people to grant them the land: “This is the land that I swore to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov, saying, ‘To your seed I will give it’.” (Deut. 34:4) There were among the sages those who inferred from these words that God intended for Moshe to deliver this message to these long-departed forefathers, seeing in this verse an indication that the dead live on after life. (See Berachot 18b; Y. Berachot 2:3)
This “rabbinic interpretation” provided the background for an interesting rabbinic story since it clearly contradicts the following verse from Kohelet: “For the living know that they shall die; but the dead no nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
Rabbi Hiyya Rabbah and Rabbi Yonatan were walking before the funeral bier of Rabbi Shimon ben Yossi ben Lakuniah. Rabbi Yonatan’s tallit was dragging over the funeral bier. Rabbi Hiyyah Rabbah said to him: “My son, lift up your tallit, lest they (the dead) say, ‘Tomorrow they come to us, but now they scoff at us.’” Rabbi Yonatan replied: “But is it not written: ‘And the dead no nothing’?” Rabbi Hiyya replied: “My son, Scripture you know; midrash, you do not know. – ‘For the living know’ – this refers to the righteous, who even in death are called living; ‘And the dead know nothing’ – this refers to the wicked, who even while they are alive are called dead.” From where do we know that the righteous are called living even in death? As it is written: ‘to the land which was sworn to Avraham, to Yitzhak and to Yaakov, saying…” (Deut. 34:4) The verse not refer, in general, to forefathers but rather [specifically to each one]: Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. God said to Moshe: ‘Go and tell them that I have fulfilled the oath which I swore to them… Rabbi Yonatan said to Rabbi Hiyya: ‘Bless you for teaching me midrash’ and he kissed him on his head. (adapted from Kohelet Rabbah 9:5)
There are two striking features in this story, one interpretive and one theological. Rabbi Yonatan initially interprets the verse from Ecclesiastes according to its plain sense. This leads him to the theological conclusion that there is no afterlife and therefore, one does not have to be sensitive to the feelings of the dead. Rabbi Hiyya asserts that there is another layer of meaning to Scripture, midrash, which affirms the Pharisaic/Rabbinic belief that there is life after death for the righteous. Hence, Moshe is able to report to the patriarchs about the news of God’s oath being fulfilled.
Why all the talk about life after death? Rabbinic Judaism seeks in this idea two affirmations: one that there is ultimate justice in God’s world and two, an optimistic affirmation that life is ultimately not finite. While neither of these ideas can be empirically proven, they provide for a sense that God’s world is a good and benevolent place even though it does not always seem to be.
In addition, on a personal note, it allows us to have a sense that when we lose a loved one, the voice we hear is more than just a memory – it is a living presence that will always be there.
In memory of my dad, Sam Silverstein z”l, who passed away before Yom Kippur.