One of the great mysteries of life is our desire to know what happens when life is over.
Not infrequently, when I meet with a family that is struggling with the loss of a loved one I get asked, “what does Judaism say about the afterlife? What happens after we die?”
Judaism does not offer one universally accepted picture of the nature of olam haba, the world to come. However, we do affirm that we have a soul, and we affirm that the soul survives.
This is beautifully illustrated in a story, author unknown, that I heard from my classmate and colleague, Rabbi Micah Caplan:
When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished, old case, fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it.
Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was "information please" and there was nothing she did not know. "Information please" could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie in the bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench of the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason for crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. “Information please," I said in to the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small voice spoke into my ear.
"Information." "I hurt my finger…" I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. "Isn’t your mother home?" came the question. "Nobody’s home but me," I blubbered.
"Are you bleeding?" the voice asked. "No" I replied. "I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts." "Can you open your icebox?" she asked. I said I could. "Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger," said the voice.
After that I called "Information please" for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me that my pet chipmunk, which I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.
Then there was the time that Petey, our pet canary died. I called information please" and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said the unusual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled. I asked her "why is it that birds should sing so beautifully, and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?" She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, "Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in."
Another day, I was on the telephone. "Information please." "Information", said the now familiar voice. "How do you spell fix?” I asked. All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.
When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. "Information please" belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciate now how patient, understanding and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about a half an hour or so between planes. I spent about fifteen minutes on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, "information please." Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. "Information." I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, "could you please tell me how to spell fix?" There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, "I guess your finger must have healed by now." I laughed. "So it’s really still you," I said. "I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during this time." "I wonder," she said, "if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls."
I told her how often I had thought o
f her over the years and I asked her if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. "Please do, she said. "Just ask for Sally."
Three months later, I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered. "Information." I asked for Sally. "Are you a friend?" she said. "Yes, a very old friend," I answered. "I’m sorry to have to tell you this," she said, "Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago."
Before I could hang up she said, "wait a minute." Did you say your name was Paul?" "Yes" I responded. "Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you. The note said, "tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean." I thanked her and hung up the phone. I knew what Sally meant.
All of the songs we sing at our Passover seder can serve to remind us of those who are missing, whose voices are no longer being heard joining in the singing at the seder table.
So it is appropriate that we have Yizkor at the close of Passover, a time to reflect on the lives of those we love who are now singing their song in a different world.
I think the story of “information please” resonates with me a lot because for many years my relationship with my grandmother was mostly one over the phone – she lived in Florida, I lived in California, so I didn’t see her often. But we would speak on the phone, and she was always there as a comforting voice, just like the operator. When she passed away I felt she was still there, that if only I knew the right area code I would still be able to call her.
But as time went by, I learned that you don’t need a phone. The special area code you need to dial to reach your loved ones is not one that requires pushing buttons on a phone. It’s a code in your heart. Whenever we think of our loved ones, when we reflect on their lives, when we remember their presence, they are there.
In the Hallel we recited earlier this morning we sang “lo amut, ki echyeh v’asaper maaseh Yah.” “I will not die for I shall live and sing the praises of God.” Our loved ones who have left us have not stopped singing God’s praises, they are just doing it in another world. And they would not want us to stop singing in this world simply because they are gone. When we sing praises to God, and thank God for the time we had together with them, we make their memories a bracha, a blessing, with which to close the Passover Festival.
We continue with the Yizkor service.