I am honored to be asked to write for the Kavod v’Nichum Blog. Since this is my first entry, I wanted to introduce myself to you—at least in terms of what I believe as a rabbi and a mourner. Like you, I am involved with doing mitzvot before and after a death occurs. It is important for us to be clear about what we believe and how it affects what we do.
Despite my faith in life after death, I am afraid to die. It’s the uncertainty that bothers me. I don’t like uncertainty in general. How much the more so should it bother me about an existence for which there seems to be no real proof. There is speculation, there are “near-death experiences” that people have that seem to have certain elements in common, and there is unquestioned faith among hundreds of millions of religious people. For some, it is better than life on earth, or it is a reward (or punishment) for our earthly deeds.
I can tell you exactly when my uncertainty started. We were living in Hingham, Massachusetts, and I was serving my second congregation of the three that I served over a period of thirty-seven years. Our daughter Samantha had just been born, and her bedroom was across the hall from our bedroom. She would occasionally sing herself to sleep; at least that’s what her mother and I called it. She would hum and sound perfectly happy as she drifted off to sleep with a cassette tape of pleasant music playing in the background. Most of the time, I was amazed at how fortunate I was and we were. But, all of a sudden one night, I sat up in bed and began to think about what it would be like to not have this kind of happiness, and – even worse – to not be alive! What would it be like? And how would I know? I learned later from a therapist that I was “catastrophizing” – letting my imagination run wild and take me to dark places that were the worst possible scenarios.
This “catastrophizing” – specifically, about not being alive – still crops up occasionally. But, a combination of faith and therapy have convinced me that there is certainty about this: I have no control over what happens to me after I die, but I do have control over what I think and what I feel and what I believe about it. And, I have the ability to share my faith and my hope with others – especially in my role as a rabbi. So, I choose to believe in life after death.
But what if I am wrong? What if I am wrong as a rabbi and a mourner? What if – as some people believe – there is nothing after death? What if there is no “World-To-Come?” What if there is no reuniting with the souls of the people you loved? What if there is no resurrection of the dead and a chance at a second life? And what if my faith is right? What if the preaching and teaching I have been doing for forty years about enduring hope and endless love is right? What if there is something in the World-To-Come that involves being reunited with the souls of the people I loved here on earth? I believe that it is right to have faith. Whenever I delivered a sermon at a memorial service or a eulogy at a funeral, whenever I counseled someone whose loved one had died or taught a class about life after death, I hoped that what I had to say about death would bring my congregants and my students comfort and perspective and confidence. For the most part, having hope and faith has worked for them, and it has worked for me.
I got married for the second time in September of 2016 to a beautiful woman named Donna, who also has a beautiful soul. She believes that we were “meant to be,” and that we will be connected after we die because we are bashert (predestined to be together). Although I am a little more than seven years older than she is, there is no guarantee that I will die first—especially when you take into consideration that she has had cancer of the stomach lining twice, and is now in remission. But, she is confident that we will be reunited in the World-To-Come, that God is good and will arrange the shidduch (match) for us there, and that our souls will experience eternity together. She is incredibly convincing, and I – more of a skeptic about the afterlife than she is – have become a “convert” to her way of thinking and feeling. It is a happy thought and a happy feeling that forms the foundation of her belief, and I am happy to share it with her.
I have written a book, entitled Finding Hope and Faith in the Face of Death: Insights of a Rabbi and Mourner, in which I convey important spiritual messages about understanding the value of life, making each day count, cherishing the people we love, and being compassionate toward those who are suffering. Actually, “empathetic” is probably a better word. I have found that the best comforters of mourners are those loved ones and friends and clergy who have experienced the same pain and have come through it. That doesn’t mean that the mourners are totally healed, but it does mean that they understand the journey, and the stops and starts along the way that are natural and difficult, and those that are inspiring and surmountable.
I have been an admirer and “disciple” of Rabbi Harold Kushner since I read his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In fact, when I teach about Jewish theology, I refer to myself as a “Kushnerian.” I have had the good fortune to hear him speak a few times, and I will never forget his observations one of those times about Job and his friends. As you may know, Job is the man to whom everything terrible happens, and his friends come to visit him and argue with him and accuse him. “While we may not like the substance of their message to him,” Rabbi Kushner said at one of those speeches, “at least they were there for him.”
That is exactly what happens when you do Chevra Kadisha work, and that is what my book is about – “being there” for people at a time of death, and providing some comfort and hope and faith for them. Sometimes our words are eloquent. Sometimes our gifts are appreciated. But sometimes, we are at our best and we are the most empathetic when we are simply there. We honor the deceased by our actions when we perform the mitzvot involved with death. We don’t stay away, and we don’t get scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, and we often choose to do what others cannot or will not do. We are God’s angels, God’s partners when we draw from our knowledge, our experience, and the inherent sensitivity of Jewish Tradition when a death occurs. I believe that God is there for me in my life, and that my being supportive and helpful to others is what God wants me to do—specifically, to make a positive difference in the lives of others. My father died in 2002 and my mother in 2004. I have faith and hope that they and God are “smiling with pride” in the World-to-Come whenever I or anyone else makes a positive difference.
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.