SHABBAT HOL HAMOED PESACH

RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD

“God’s hand came upon me. I was taken out by the spirit of GOD and set down in the valley. It was full of bones.”  (Ezekiel 37:1)

            Three times a day I recite my daily prayers.  These include the prayer, Baruch Ata HaShem Mikhiyei HaMetim – “Praised are You, O Lord, Who brings the dead to life.”  The prayerbook I use at my synagogue, which is Conservative, deliberately changes the translation – “Praised are You, O Lord, Master of life and death.”  It seems to be the way of Conservative Judaism to leave the Hebrew alone but change the English, making it less controversial.

            My friends in the Reform Movement are a bit more consistent.  They change both the Hebrew and the English, Baruch Ata HaShem Mikhiyei HaKol – “Praised are You, O Lord, Who gives life to everything.”  But classical Judaism literally teaches bodily resurrection.  That is why in Jewish tradition we try to bury the body as complete as possible, even with amputated limbs.  No one wants to hobble around on one leg when they come back to life.

            This idea of resurrection is central to Christian theology.  The holiest day of the Christian calendar is Easter Sunday.  The day is not about the Easter bunny or coloring Easter eggs.  It is about the core Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead.  This is vital for Christians.  But for Jews, such resurrection is delayed to a Messianic future.

            Why am I mentioning resurrection of the dead this week?  Because the Prophetic portion we read in synagogue is Ezekiel’s famous passage of the valley of the bones.  Ezekiel is shown a valley filled with bones and told to prophesize to the bones.  Suddenly flesh returns to the bones and they come back to life.  It is the classical image of the resurrection of the dead.  Many have seen this as a prophecy of the people Israel rising from the ashes of the Holocaust to build a Jewish state.  It is a highly emotional image for Jews.

            But the Rabbis of Talmudic times took a much more literal view of bodily resurrection.  We are literally coming back.  When I come back, I do not know if I want this particular body.  (It would be nice to have Brad Pitt’s).  But how do I really understand this ancient Rabbinic idea?  I will give my opinion, but it may mean I will lose my place in the World-to-Come.  “These are the people who have no place in the World-to-Come.  Someone who says there is no resurrection of the dead in the Torah” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).

            The Torah says nothing about resurrection of the dead.  When we leave this world, our bodies sleep in the ground and our souls return to God Who gave it.  So how did this idea develop?  I think it represents a powerful idea developed by the Rabbis.  We each have a job to do in this material world.  And none of us can possibly finish that job in our lifetime.   As Rabbi Tarfon said in the Talmud, “You do not have to finish the work, nor are you free to avoid it altogether” (Avot 2:16).  We will come back because we have work to do in this world.  And our tradition is not about some perfect spiritual world, but this imperfect one in which we live.

            In the Jewish mystical tradition, a slightly different tradition developed.  Perhaps under the influence of Eastern faiths like Hinduism or the Greek teachings of Pythagoras, the mystics taught a principle of gilgul nefeshot or reincarnation.   Our souls will come back, but we will be given new bodies.  Many thinkers have built on this idea that we have lived lives in the past and our souls have come back to continue their work.  One thinks of Brian Weiss’s extremely popular book Many Lives, Many Masters.   Whether Weiss is correct about past lives, there is something deeply appealing about the idea of our souls coming back to continue what was left unfinished.

            Whether one believes in resurrection or reincarnation or some combination of both, there is something very appealing about the idea.  Life is not about getting into heaven.  It is about trying to perfect this world as a Kingdom of God.  Each of us has a job to do in this world.  We do not know what will happen when we are gone, but while we are alive, we need to focus on this world.