Contacting the Dead
Chapter 2, Law 11
"One who sins to his fellow, and his fellow dies before he begs his
forgiveness, [the sinner must] bring ten people, stand them up by [his
fellow's] grave, and say before them, 'I have sinned to G-d, the L-rd of
Israel and to so and so in that I did to him such and such...' If he owed
[the deceased] money, he must return it to his heirs. If he does not know an
heir [of the victim], he must leave [the money] with the courts and
In the past few laws, the Rambam has been discussing the sinner's obligation
to beg the forgiveness of the one he has wronged. In this law he discusses
the means of making amends to a person who passed away before the sinner was
able to apologize. I don't have a lot to add to this week's law, but a few
minor points are worth noting.
First of all, it goes without saying that after a person's death his soul
still exists. The person you wronged is still alive -- on every plane but
the physical -- and may well still be hurting over the wrong you committed
against him. You have the same obligation to apologize to him as when he was
among the living. It is just now somewhat more difficult to reach him. (For
a fascinating Talmudic passage about the awareness of the dead of the goings
on of this world, see Brachos 18b.)
As an aside, I am always appalled at the number of Jews I encounter who have
no idea that Judaism believes in the Afterlife, thinking it a Christian
invention. There isn't the slightest basis for this: Christianity inherited
the entire concept from us -- a great many of the details as well. It is
true, as I've pointed out in the past, that the Written Torah places little
emphasis on such matters. The Torah is primarily a guide book for living
meaningfully in this world. It is not a philosophical work on contemplating
G-d. Yet so many references to the hereafter exist in Scriptural and
Rabbinical writings that there can be no doubt whatsoever as to its
existence. The Rambam himself codifies the belief in the World to Come as (a
part of) the eleventh of his Thirteen Fundamental Principles of Faith.
Regarding why less emphasis is placed on the World to Come in Rabbinical
writings than in other religions, I'm always fond of quoting a remark I
heard attributed to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, which really hits the
proverbial nail on the head: "Whereas Christianity is a religion invented by
man to understand G-d, Judaism is a religion invented by G-d to understand man."
If the origin of a religion is man's very worthy desire to figure out who
G-d is and to make sense of the universe, then much of its focus will be on
the Divine: who is G-d, where is He, what is He, how is He, etc. Much ink
will be spilled -- and wars fought -- over precise matters of doctrine, many
of which appearing wholly inconsequential to the uninitiated.
Judaism, however, was a religion invented by G-d. G-d was not interested in
writing a work describing Himself. His intent was instructing man on the
meaningful life. Although to be sure the Torah teaches us basic tenets of
reward and punishment and of Heaven and Hell, the focus is almost
exclusively on man -- who we are, how we should behave, and how we must care
for the enormous gifts of life and the world G-d has bequeathed to us. A
literature does exist on more subtle matters of faith, but it was never the
primary emphasis of the Torah nor of Israel's study of it.
A second very significant thought is proposed by R. Yehuda HaLevi (12th
Century Spanish philosopher and poet) in his work The Kuzari (I:104-111).
Other religions generally focus so much on the World to Come because that
really is all they *can* promise. Since they cannot guarantee reward in this
world -- without running the risk of engendering some very powerful
theological difficulties for themselves -- they spend their efforts pumping
up the next world. They promise the moon -- just around the corner! And why
not? No one will ever come back to disprove them!
Our Torah can and does do much better. It promises that if we serve Him, He
will dwell among us (see Exodus 25:8). We will see open miracles in the
Temple. Prophets will speak in the name of G-d. We will dwell in a land
whose productivity depends entirely on our spiritual level. We can give more
charity and see the results. G-d promises the World to Come -- at least a
likeness of it -- right here and now. Sure, much more is in store in the
Next World. The Torah makes it clear that this world is merely a foretaste
of things to come. Yet, G-d need not wait for some hazy future world to
reward His faithful. He promises the moon and delivers.
Returning to the Rambam, I feel another significant point of clarification
is in line. We must apologize to the deceased whom we wronged during his
lifetime. When we think about it, it's actually surprising that this is
still necessary. If this person is now up in Heaven, he must now know the
truth about this world and all that occurs in it. Therefore, it's hard to
believe he would still really care that I hurt or insulted him once upon a
time. Not only would petty words or deeds hardly matter to a person in the
World of Souls, but perhaps he now knows that the little bit of harm I did
him was actually quite in his interests. Instead of suffering purgatory in
Hell, he paid off a few more of his debts down here, when the suffering was
so much more trivial and transient. He may even be grateful that a jerk like
me volunteered to be G-d's staff of chastisement -- before it was too late.
This, however, is not necessarily true. For better or worse, when we go to
Heaven we will not be all that different from whom we are today. As evident
as the "truth" will then be, we will still possess much of the same
smallness and pettiness which we made a part of ourselves during out
lifetimes. In Heaven we do not instantly become saints, floating from cloud
to cloud with our heavenly harp and wings. We will be left with all of our
faults and foibles. And even worse, there will no longer be anything we'll
be able to do about them. The Sages teach us: "One hour of repentance and
good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to
Come" (Pirkei Avos 4:22).
Only in this world can we strive to make ourselves better. In the next, we
will be who we will be -- forever.
There is a very curious story in Scripture (I Kings 22). Achav (Ahab),
wicked king of Israel, wanted to capture a portion of land from the
neighboring nation of Aram. He asked Jehoshaphat, the righteous King of
Judah, to accompany him. Jehoshaphat agreed, but asked that Achav first
confer with the prophets for their prognosis. Achav readily agreed, quickly
producing hundreds of his false prophets. They naturally and accommodatingly
promised him complete victory.
But there was something different this time. This wasn't the prophets'
typical sham. This time they seemed possessed. They were swaying and
chanting as if bewitched, as if some true spirit was operating within them.
Even so, King Jehoshaphat was not convinced. He asked if a *real* prophet
could be found. Michayhu son of Yimla was produced. After some reluctance,
he informed them of the true events which had transpired in Heaven. G-d was
sitting on His throne, with the entire host of heaven to His right and left.
(See Talmud Sanherdrin 102b for an understanding of this highly
anthropomorphic verse.) G-d asked: "Who will seduce Achav and he will ascend
and fall in Ramos Gilad?... A spirit went forth and it stood before G-d and
said, 'I will seduce him... I will go out and be a false spirit before all
his prophets.' And [the L-rd] said, 'Seduce and you will be successful. Go
out and do so.'"
This, explained Michayhu, was the 'spirit' which had possessed Achav's
otherwise worthless and ineffectual prophets. They themselves had been duped
into imagining they were granted some true spirit of prophecy this one time.
Well of course, at this point we might expect Achav to come to his senses
and take heed of the prophet's stern warning. But naturally that wasn't the
Divine plan -- nor the objectivity to be expected of wicked, headstrong
Achav. Achav insisted on Michayhu's incarceration and marches off -- to his
death. The "spirit" had done its job well.
One final question. Who was this "spirit" floating around in heaven, who
came forth to fool Achav and his prophets? As little as we know about the
goings on in heaven, are there actually free spirits roaming about up there
volunteering to do G-d's dirty work for Him, some heavenly body of ghostly
Explains the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a) that this was the recently-deceased
Navas HaYizraeli. Who was Navas? An ordinary Israeli citizen who had the
poor fortune of owning a vineyard Achav coveted. When he refused to part
with his field, Achav's darling wife Izevel (Jezebel) had him framed and put
to death, and Achav claimed the vineyard for himself (I Kings 21). Navas,
now in heaven, wanted his revenge -- and found the perfect way to exact it.
States the Talmud that on account of Navas' revenge, he lost his own place
in heaven. When G-d said to him "Go out (and seduce)" (22:22), part of the
implied meaning was go out of My close quarters. Up until now you were a
victim of Achav's capriciousness. Now you have exacted your own sweet
revenge. There is no longer place for you in the highest heavens.
There are many powerful lessons which may be culled from this one cryptic
event. For our purposes, however, I would like to just bring out one very
simple point -- that after a person's death he remains the same person he
was in his lifetime. Navas was still smarting from the royal couple's
wickedness, and he yearned for retribution -- even at the cost of his own
World to Come. So too -- returning to our law -- if you've wronged a person
and he passes on, he may still have it in for you in heaven. Not the sort of
being you would want scheming against you.
I will just conclude this already-lengthy class by again quoting the mishna
in Pirkei Avos: "One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is
better than the entire life of the World to Come." We have the chance, while
yet alive, to improve ourselves and better our ways. The fleeting tens of
years we have today will not last forever. And the eternity which will
follow will only be as good as we make it today. Let us utilize every moment
while we still have the opportunity, before "the dust returns to the ground
as it was, and the spirit returns to the G-d who granted it" (Koheles 12:7).
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org