It was the kind of call you dread. On the line was a dear friend from Los Angeles, Sam Rosenwald. He had attended kindergarten with my wife. I had officiated at his wedding, his son’s Bar Mitzvah and his father’s funeral. He was a rising star in the Jewish Federation leadership in Los Angeles, a noted philanthropist. For a year he had been fighting a lethal cancer, and the news was bleak. “They have stopped the treatment, nothing more can be done and it’s a matter of a few weeks.” Then he said, “I need your help in preparing for the next world.”
A few days later when we sat and talked in Los Angeles, he had a remarkable sense of inner peace. I shared with him the classical Jewish teachings of the Next World. “Central to Judaism is the belief in that this world is but one dimension; beyond the physical horizon there is a spiritual world. Our understanding, limited by time and space, cannot comprehend this spiritual dimension. Life is the fusion of two opposites, body and soul; we are trustees of life. Ultimately, the soul continues on in a higher world; the body is interred in the ground.”
We spoke of the story of Rabbi Yossi in the Talmud. He fell into a coma, having what is called in modern medicine a “near death experience.” He returned to this world telling his students, “I saw an inverted world; the uppermost in this world are below in the world to come, and the lowly in this world are above.” Rabbi Yossi’s lesson was powerful: those whose focus is material, whose life revolves around achieving wealth, status and prestige, are not the most endeared above. It’s those whose life is based on infused purpose, spirituality and Mitzvahs who rise to a higher level in the Olam Haba, the next dimension.
I told Sammy the story of the great Jewish philanthropist of the 19th century, Sir Moses Montefiore. When asked by Queen Victoria for his net worth, he responded with a number that surprised the monarch. She told him, “You are worth more than that.” He responded, “My true wealth is the money I have given to Tzedekah, charity, that merit what I truly have. Everything else comes and goes with the ups and downs of business.”
Sammy did not fear his demise because of his strong belief in the next world, and the deep sense of purpose in his life, that what is important is not what we earn, but what we do with it. I was astonished by his lack of fear. He was at peace with himself. One of the great rabbis of the 19th century, the Chasam Sofer, says, “True courage is someone who does not fear death.” When our lives are rich with ideals, goodness and caring for others; when we realize that the teachings of Judaism that give us direction in this dimension are a GPS to the next one, we do not fear our ultimate fate. When our focus is just on the immediate, the next deal, the fancier house, the new car, the next world is scary since it’s something beyond our frame of reference.
Sadly two weeks later Sammy succumbed. The funeral had more than 700 people, the cream of Jewish LA. What was most important is he passed at peace with his family, community and a firm understanding that life was not ending. He was going to another dimension, one where as a Jew whose life was filled with Mitzvahs would find a heavenly repose.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.