High Holy Day Sermons – 5774

Kol Nidre – Saving Our Souls

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke about spiritual fitness. You may remember, I suggested that the synagogue might serve as a “spiritual fitness club”, and that membership was available to all who would seek it.

That sermon was connected to the one I gave on Erev Rosh Hashanah, about saving the world by saving a single life. I explained then the thinking of our rabbis of old—that every life is precious and that in every life there is the potential to create a whole world. And I suggested then that we ought to begin by doing the things that were necessary to save our own lives.

And so this evening, I offer the third part of the trilogy:

Saving our lives—preserving our physical existence in this world;

Saving our spirits—ensuring our emotional and spiritual well-being;

and now…

Saving our souls—using this life to prepare for life in the world-to-come.

The great Rabbi Baruchiya was having trouble sleeping. Night after night, he was awakened in the middle of his sleep by a deam, in which his life in the world-to-come was revealed to him bit by bit. And the rabbi was troubled, because it was revealed to him that his neighbor in the world-to-come was to be none other than Yankel the tailor. “How can this be?” He asked himself, “How can it be that a simple tailor will sit next to me in the House of Study in the world-to-come? I would have thought that I would have merited at least another rabbi or, perhaps, a scholar. I wonder what it is that I might have done to make God so unhappy with me that I should sit next to Yankel the tailor in the world-to-come. And then Rabbi Baruchiya had another dream. And in this dream he saw Yankel collecting all of the little scraps of cloth that remained after he had made a shirt or a dress, and saving them away. And then, at night, when no one was watching, Yankel returned to his shop to make a beautiful wedding dress for a bride from a poor family. And then he woke up. And Rabbi Baruchiya thought to himself. I wonder what it is that I might have done to make God so happy with me that he would allow me to sit next to Yankel the tailor in the world-to-come.”

The world-to-come.

So much has been written in rabbinic literature about the world-to-come, and despite this there is so little agreement about what it might be like. Just about the only thing that the rabbis agree upon, concerning the world-to-come, is that we cannot know anything about it with certainty. This, by definition, for no one has ever died and come back to tell us about it first-hand.

“During the Rabbinic period virtually all Jews shared an accepted set of doctrines concerning life after death. Jews believed that every person has an eternal soul, which outlives the body. They believed that after death God rewards the good and punishes the bad. They believed that in time to come God would bring all the dead back to life. The good would then be rewarded with eternal bodily life on earth, while the evil would go to eternal destruction.

The primary concern of Jews was to live this earthly life according to the Torah. The rabbis were more interested in defining halakha than in defining the details of the afterlife. A great variety of beliefs existed. The rabbis made an attempt to unify Jewish beliefs in such matters. The Talmud quotes a variety of rabbinic masters concerning their beliefs about the nature of life after death. No attempt is made to judge between the different opinions.

One belief was that after death the souls of the righteous are kept in a box under the throne of God. Another belief is that the righteous sit upon thrones and enjoy the radiance of God’s light. The former view sees the afterlife as a passive existence in which individual character and personality do not persist. The second opinion depicts an afterlife in which the individual has a more self-aware existence in eternity.

A more active view of the afterlife is the belief in the ‘Yeshiva shel malah—the Yeshiva on high’. On earth the Torah scholars sit in the yeshiva and discuss the meaning of the Torah; in heaven the righteous sit in the Yeshiva on High, while the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets teach. A righteous Jew could look forward to listening and even participating as the greatest rabbis of all time clarified the fine points of Torah. (It is the permission of this heavenly Yeshiva that we will ask before we chant Kol Nidre in a few moments.) Of course the laws of the Torah did not apply to life in heaven; the heavenly study of Torah was truly ‘Torah lishma—Torah for its own sake.’”                               (Wylen, Settings of Silver, p.90f)

Maimonides suggests that, whatever the world-to-come might be like, it is other than this world, and beyond our understanding:

“There are neither bodies nor bodily forms in the world-to-come,” he writes, “but only the disembodied souls of the righteous who have become like the ministering angels. Since there are no bodies, there is no eating or drinking there, nor is there anything which the human body needs in this world. Nor do there occur there any of the events which occur to the human body in this world such as sitting, standing, sleep, death, distress, laughter and so forth…You may be repelled by this,” he goes on to say, “imagining that the only worthwhile reward for keeping the commandments and for a man (sic) being perfect in the ways of truth is for him to eat and drink well and have beautiful women and wear garments of fine linen and embroidery and live in marble palaces and have vessels of silver and gold…But the sages and intellectuals know that these things are vain, stupid and valueless and only are greatly attractive to us in this world where we do have bodies and bodily form. All these things have to do with the needs of the body,” says Maimonides. “The soul only longs for them because the body needs them if it is to remain healthy and thus perform its function. But all these things cease when the body no longer enjoys existence. There is no way at all for us to comprehend the great goodness, which is the experience of the soul in the world-to-come, for in this world we know only of material pleasures, and these we desire.

That goodness is great beyond measure, and can only be compared to that which we consider to be good in this world by analogy. But in reality there can be no way of comparing the good of the soul in the world-to-come with the physical goods of food and drink in this world. That good is great beyond all our understanding and incomparable beyond all our imagination. The ancient sages have already told us that man is incapable of truly comprehending the good of the world-to-come and that only the Holy One, blessed be God, knows its greatness, beauty and nature. And that all the goods the prophets foretold for Israel refer only to the material pleasures that will be theirs in the days of the Messiah when Israel will once again enjoy sovereignty. But there is nothing to which the life of the world-to-come can be compared, and it is beyond the human imagination.”  (Maimonides, Yad, Teshuvah 8)

So why all this concern with a world-to-come that we can never fully comprehend? Why be concerned at all with the disposition of our souls after our time in this world has come to an end?

Because it has been inconceivable to the Jewish heart and mind that this world is all there is. And it is hard for me, personally, to imagine that God’s purpose in creating this world and the human beings who inhabit it is simply to allow us a few years of existence—threescore years and ten, by virtue of merit—and then to destroy us at whatever moment God chooses for our earthly lives to end. And it should be equally hard for any of us to imagine that this physical life, as focused as it is on materialism and satisfaction, is in itself, worth all of God’s efforts or worthy of God’s talents.

Therefore, the rabbis held out the hope of a life of greater purpose and meaning in the world-to-come, a life of metaphysical pleasures and unity with the Divine—but the richest of its pleasures was to be reserved for those who earned such reward through their acts and deeds in this world.

We are taught in Pirke Avot, that this world is a “vestibule for the world-to-come”. In other words, this life is in preparation for that which is to follow. And if we are to save our souls, what prescription is offered? What is the kind of life that we are meant to live in this world?

Nothing less than a life of mitzvot, a life dedicated to values of Torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim—Torah, worship and deeds of loving kindness.

Raba said,

When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, Did you deal with integrity [in business matters], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another. Yet even so, if ‘the fear of God is his treasure,’ it is well: if not, [it is] not [well]. (Shabbat 31a)

According to this passage from the Talmud, the first question that we will be asked in heaven is “Did you deal with integrity in business matters?” Not “did you go to shul?” “Did you honor your parents?” “Did you give tzedakah?” Not even “did you study Torah?” (That is the second question.) Raba is trying to tell us that it is how we deal with the day-to-day aspects of living, and whether or not we are able to bring elements of holiness to the mundane tasks of our lives, that allows the soul to shine through, and to rejoice in the fulfillment of its mission.

It is only after this that we are asked about partnering with God—Torah study to connect us with the Divine Will and procreation to ensure a lasting covenant with the Holy One and a partnership in the unfolding creation of the universe. Hope for the future. Engaging in religious ideas and wisdom. But still the soul is not redeemed.

For in the end, we are told that saving our souls depends on “yirat shamayim—the fear of Heaven”. If this is our treasure, it will be well, and if not, not…

…And so we find ourselves here on this Kol Nidre, trying to summon up the Fear of Heaven, preparing ourselves for the judgment that will come at the end of this Yom Kippur day. We sense that we are still not “ready” for the moment of judgment. We are aware of our need for this final day, these last hours, to lessen the severity of the decree, to purify our souls and renew our lives through our confessions, our declarations, our promises for the future.

With the setting of the sun, our Day of Atonement begins. We look back upon the year that has ended, and forward to the year ahead. Together in this “vestibule of the world-to-come,” we cry out to the Holy One to help us with our teshuvah:

O God, from this Day of Atonement to the next—may we reach it in peace—we make these vows: to turn from wrong, dishonesty and greed, to walk in the path of justice and right. And yet we know our weakness—how prone we are to fail: help us to keep our word; help us to act with humility and integrity. We seek pardon and forgiveness. We seek Your radiance and Your light…As You have been faithful to us ever since Egypt, please forgive our failings now, in keeping with Your boundless love.”


Hashiveynu adonai eylecha v’nashuvah—Help us to return to You, O God, and we shall return.”


Hoshiya et amecha—Save us, Your people.”


To You, alone, do we call. Save our bodies, save our spirits, save our souls.