Rosh Hashanah Meditation
A member of our congregation recently gave me a gift of a slim volume called Sum: forty tales from the afterlives by a neuroscientist names David Eagleman. It consists of forty two or three page musings on the afterlife. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I first opened it up. I’ve read most of the 40 reflections numerous times now, and I’ve decided that one, in particular, might be especially helpful to our observance of the Jewish New Year.
It is at this time of year — and only this time of year — that we read that powerful section of the liturgy called “u’ne’taneh tokef” — “let us acknowledge the power of the sanctity of the day.” It’s the one that warns us that on Rosh Hashanah God writes down who shall live and who shall die and we have until Yom Kippur to appeal the decision.
The third “tale” in Sum is called “Circle of Friends.” In about four brief paragraphs, Eagleman describes the afterlife as almost exactly the same as our earthly life, except that it is populated only by those people we encountered and remembered during our lifetime. It takes a little while to realize what is missing — crowds, factories, trains — all the things with which you never had any experience in life. The final paragraph:
“The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.” (p.9)
The High Holy Days are all about choice; choosing life and blessing rather than death and curses, good over evil, returning to the path of righteousness rather than following the stubborn ways of our own hearts. But it’s all so much more easily said than done — especially in a world that seems to be imploding and exploding all over the place.
We have to make a choice every day. We have to choose to embrace life, to seek out the goodness in life, not to give up in the face of all the horror, violence, brutality, suffering we see from every direction.
Eagleman’s little chapter hit me with a compelling sense of urgency. This is it. This is our life. It may be that this is all there is. Judaism doesn’t tell us much about the afterlife. We are supposed to focus on the here and now. But the thought that what we make of our here and now could be what we are blessed — or condemned — to live forever after is a pretty effective motivator!
The thought of spending eternity with those we remember might make us a little nicer to them the next time we see them! And the thought of spending eternity only with those we remember might make us look a bit beyond our “Circle of Friends” — our own comfort zone — and season our circle of friends with the diversity and variety that make life fully meaningful.
Most of all, that notion of spending eternity only with those we have known and remember should push us to know and remember that every human being is a vessel of Divine Creative Energy. We can do without those who fail to recognize the sacred in every human life — in this world and the next. But it’s easier than we might think to become one of them.
May we choose wisely in this New Year, recognizing that all humanity is equally sacred and precious. Every soul we embrace is one more soul rescued from those exclude the “other” from their “Circle of Friends.