Just recently, I was invited to counsel a family who lost their father, something I have been doing as a rabbi for over 30 years. One of the mourners named Michael asked me the following:
“Since the day my father passed away, I haven’t stopped thinking about him, not for one moment, but what about my father? Is he thinking about me as well?”
On the surface, Michael’s question may have seemed like a mourner’s curiosity, but I knew very well that for a deep person like Michael, this feeling of being forgotten by his father was a painful one. It was challenging the very core of his existence. Michael was always very close to his father and his lifelong relationship was at stake here. He understood very well that for his relationship to continue it needed to be reciprocal, otherwise it was a meaningless one.
But Michael’s concerns about the future of his relationship with his father is not unique. I have a hunch that if you took a poll amongst mourners everywhere you would find that while most will believe in some basic form of continued existence in the afterlife, they are not so certain about their continued relationship with that existence. Does that soul whom they loved for a lifetime, love them back in return?
After all, after the soul experiences the delightful, blissful existence in heaven why would it choose to look back and remember its rocky journey on earth?
A humorous story is told of a husband and wife married for 60 years, true soulmates, who die five minutes apart and arrive in heaven together. The angels show them around the blue sky, the green golf course, the lavish banquets, the sushi and the caviar, the pate …
The husband has a fit, falls on the floor and begins kicking and screaming.
“What’s the matter?” the angels ask him. “Is this not to your liking?” “No!” he says, “quite the opposite. I don’t just like it, I love it! But it’s all her fault!” he points frantically to his wife. “What is her fault?” ask the angels.
“If not for her healthy bran muffins we could have been enjoying all of this ten years earlier!”
In other words, with heaven so good why would the soul want to remember its past trials and tribulations in this world?
Furthermore who says that the soul retains its earthly personality and “memory card” altogether? Perhaps it just sheds its earthly character traits and memories leaving them behind with the body in the grave as it is swept up in the world of spirit and truth.
One of the most famous contemporary guitarists is an artist named Eric Clapton who tragically lost his son who fell from the 38th story of his Park Ave penthouse. In memory of his son, he composed a moving, haunting song featuring the lyrics:
“Will you know my name when I see you in heaven?” It seems like Clapton too wondered whether his son would ever remember him in the afterlife and whether there still will remain a sense of family and father/son relationship in the posthumous state?
Despite the general unclarity on this subject , Jewish tradition and particularly the mystical tradition states unequivocally that not just our existence but also our relationships clearly continue beyond the grave and that it’s very much a two way street.
Specific Jewish traditions like “Yizkor” the holiday service that was established to remember our loved ones after they pass imply that our relationship with our loved ones does continue. We are taught at the service not just to remember the souls but also to re-engage in our old relationships because the souls of old return to us to remember us as well!
Likewise, the Kabbalah teaches us that on the wedding day deceased parents and grandparents return to the Chupah to be with their children and grandchildren. This again points to a two-way relationship.
Visiting the cemetery is another powerful tradition that speaks of a living vibrant posthumous relationship. When at the cemetery we are encouraged to ask that the souls of the past be “a gutte better” which means in Yiddish “a good advocate” on our behalf because of their continued love to us.
In the Talmud (Ketubot 103,a) it even goes as far as stating that Rabbi Yehuda the prince used to return posthumously to his former Shabbat table to visit his children every Friday night and check out on his family!
From all these sources and many more it is quite clear that Judaism believes that the soul maintains its old relationships in the afterlife too.
Relationships endure because it is our belief that a soul is not just some nebulous energy that animates the physical body but it has a personality too. That personality predates its arrival in the body and it continues in the afterlife as well. The soul thinks and feels independently of the body and the brain, it has self-awareness and memory. It remembers its life and maintains all its old relationships.
The soul can’t just drop its personality and history. It is an essential part of what the soul is.
The relationship continues also in terms of interdependency. While souls in the afterlife continue to pray for us and help us, they also depend on us to continue their work in this world, exactly where they left off. We are their living legacy. They check up on us and our accomplishments every single day.
I told Michael that day that that not only was his father thinking about his son but that he was watching him and very much relying on him every single day!
Based on my recently released book “Seven Conversations with Jerry: A book about the human soul, bereavement and the afterlife.”