The four questions that religions aim to answer are “How did we get here? Why are we here? What do we do while we are here? And where do we go when we are no longer here?” Each religion answers the questions to varying degrees, with religions typically choosing to focus mostly on one or two. As a Reform Jew, the question that I have been taught to focus on is “What do we do while we are here?” This is why, when faced with the overwhelming amount of death due to COVID-19 this year, I was left confused and unable to make sense of it all. I personally have yet to experience the death of a loved one, so death and what Judaism thinks about it have never been at the forefront of my mind. I know that Judaism has beliefs about the afterlife, I just don’t know what they are. I have been taught that to live a good Jewish life I should spend my time focusing on how I impact others rather than where I am going to eventually end up—focusing more on the “what do we do?” rather than the “where do we go?”.
Reform Judaism teaches the idea of “Tikkun Olam”, which translates to “repairing the world”. There are various ways that these repairs manifest themselves but the most common are volunteering in your community and donating money. Right now—in a time where money for many is scarce, and being a physical part of your community, let alone volunteering in it, is difficult—it has been hard for me to find ways to repair the world. COVID has led me back to the other questions that Judaism supposedly answers, and with deaths in the US rising to over 200,000 it has brought me back to the question, “where do we go when we are no longer here?”
I frankly didn’t know the answer. In writing this blog post I actually reached out to my Rabbi back home in St. Louis to hopefully find the answer to what Reform Judaism says about death. He explained two things to me about Reform Judaism’s beliefs on death. 1) It is a religion that is extremely accepting of science and nature and therefore has no concept of any living thing physically living past its death. 2) Your soul or “Neshamah” is eternal and, just as your body decomposes and returns to the Earth, your soul was breathed into you by G-d and therefore will return to G-d when you die. He also reminded me, on multiple occasions, that what happens to you after death is uncertain and therefore unnecessary to dwell on. My Rabbi did not know anything about my predicament of choosing between the questions “what do we do” vs “where do we go”; still he pointed out that I should focus more on living a good life rather than dwelling on what happens after my good life.
So with all of that said, I still don’t have a firm answer to the question “Where do we go when we die?” and I have come to the realization that I am okay with that. Shifting my focus back to things I can control has been somewhat cathartic. So, I turn to my fellow fellows to ask the question, what should we do while we are here? Specifically during COVID-19 times, which makes repairing the world slightly more difficult, what can we do while we’re here?