Dear Rabanit Cohen,
This year was filled with so much tragedy that struck Jewish communities worldwide. I noticed that Hashem was targeting the young and I have been having a hard time understanding why Hashem would choose to remove these beautiful souls in such tragic ways? I know that everything that Hashem does is for the good but perhaps you could offer a bit of comfort.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write. Your question is one that has been asked by many before you who have struggled to understand the ways of Hashem. I am not certain if I can even begin to shed light on your question, but I will attempt to share with you something I once read that was written by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
There was a famous psychologist who once made the observation that children think they will live forever. But then the child makes a shocking discovery and is thrust into reality. He realizes that someone he knows has expired. The child begins to wonder if this too will be his end. Will he also share the same fate and perish from this world? What is it like to die? What is death? “What will happen to me?”
As the child grows he stifles these questions because they don’t seem pressing compared to the life he is enjoying. But this shock of dying remains buried deep within. And it remains deep inside all of us. We all wonder what dying is like and what we will experience when it occurs. We all want to know why some experience death before others.
Yahadut teaches us that life here on earth is important but our destiny does not end with this life. All the greatest chachamim and Jewish Philosophers ponder the question of death and why some experience early on and all are in agreement that… “Ach Elokim yifdeh nafshi mi’yad She’ol, ki yikacheni sela – G-d will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He will receive me forever indeed” (Tehilim 49:16). What is the power of the grave and what does it mean to be received by Hashem?
Chachamim explain that before one dwells on death, he must understand what it is like to LIVE. Before exploring death, why not examine the phenomenon of life? Life is a miracle that begins at conception. This little cell begins to unfold and contains in it all the capacity and potential and even its physical appearance. Much of this little baby’s future to a large extent is already mapped out. In the womb this baby is preparing to encounter the world to come, the world outside the womb. Although the baby in the womb has organs and senses, he does not yet utilize them all – but they are nonetheless a hint of the new kind of life he will experience.
When the baby is born he is undergoing a major transition which is as traumatic as death itself. The little baby leaves behind the life he knows and embraces a new kind of life that he has never known or imagined. The baby is fascinated by all that he experiences in the new world. He realizes he is now in the world of experiences. He will now have the ability to see, hear, and to feel. The baby realizes he has a new opportunity to live in a world that is similar to the womb because it is still physical – but it offers him things that he was unable to achieve or experience in the womb.
As the baby develops, every bit of knowledge is used to build more knowledge that he can utilize to consider, to conclude and acquire wisdom. And this baby turns into a full grown person. But then what? The wonderful experience in this new world suddenly ends and it is like someone suddenly switched off the light. What happened? Did this person just die? Did he just cease to exist?
Yahadut says, “NO!” This life is not the end. This world is like the womb. It is as dark and as silent. Our bodies are also the womb to the soul. It is where the soul will develop and reside during its sojourn here on earth. A person must develop in this womb; it is a development that may span years, 70, 80, 90. We use the womb of this world and our body to develop our spirit. Therefore, every mitzvah, every kind word and tefilah nourishes our development. And when the time comes, we leave this womb and are prepared to be “born” into a new existence. We are now prepared to stand before the Creator.
When we “die,” we are merely detaching ourselves from the present stage of life and we are born into a new life that pales in comparison.
There is a story told of a little boy, an only son, who was stricken with a terrible disease. His mother tended to him month after month, while occupying his mind with other matters. She did not want her son to realize that his days were numbered. But as time passed, the boy grew worse. He would look outside the window and see all the other little boys running and playing and he knew he was not like them.
He began to understand what his mother was trying to hide from him – that he was going to die.
One day, his mother read to him about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. She read about these brave knights who met their death in noble battle. The little boy looked at his mother and asked the dreaded question, “Mommy, what is it like to die? Does it hurt?”
The mother turned her face away for a few moments to hide the tears that now formed in her eyes. What would she answer? How would she comfort her little boy? She silently asked G-d to give her the strength to tell her dying son the truth and the wisdom to know what to say. She turned to her son and said, “David, do you remember when you were a tiny boy, how you used to play so hard all day? When nighttime came, you were so tired that you would tumble into mommy’s bed in your clothes and fall asleep. But that was not your bed. It was not where you belonged. You slept in that bed for a little while but when you woke up in the morning, you were surprised to find yourself in your own bed, in your own room. Do you know what happened? Someone who loved you so much, took care of you. Your father came with his big strong arms and carried you away. Death is just like that. We wake up and find ourselves in another room, our own room, where we belong. G-d, our Father, carries us there because He loves us.”
The little boy smiled at his mother with a sparkle in his eyes. He was no longer afraid or worried. Only love and trust filled his heart. Several weeks later, the little boy fell asleep just as his mother said he would and his loving Father carried him away gently back to where he belonged.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states: “This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall” (4:21).
When we leave the womb called the body, we are suddenly freed from the mortal flesh and we experience the glorious mercy of Hashem. When we have faith in Hashem, we are not afraid to “die” because we know that we will soon begin to live. Here on this earth, we must be grateful for every moment that allows us to experience the ultimate life. When you live in this womb and utilize the opportunities, it becomes a life well worth living.