Hershel of Ostropol, died as he lived, with a joke on his lips. As the end neared, the people of the village gathered around the bed, where he lay weak and almost too tired to speak.
“Hershel, ” said the rabbi. “You are dying. Now, will you at last be serious?”
“Why start now?” asked Hershel.
“But Hershel!” said the rabbi. “In a few minutes, the Angel of Death will come to you. He will ask your name – and what will you say?”
“I’ll tell him it’s Moses.”
“But he’ll know it’s not Moses – it’s Hershel!”
“So if he knew, why did he ask?”
“But he’ll ask what you’ve done with your life, how you’ve mended your ways, how you’ve mended the world. What will you say?”
“I’ll tell him,” said Hershel, “that I’ve mended my socks.”
Hershel began to fade. “I have but one last request,” he said, faintly. “Come closer.” They all leaned forward. “I ask simply this – when you place me in my coffin, I beg of you-please do not carry me under my arms.”
And with these words, he closed his eyes and died.
Silence filled the room. Such a strange request. Then, all at once, they began to ask-“Why? Hershel-tell us why!?
After a moment, Hershel opened his eyes and spoke to them from the world beyond. “I’ve always been a little ticklish there.”
(The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, by Joel ben Izzy, p.171)
I started thinking about the questions we will be asked when we get to heaven after Simon Wiesenthal, zichrono livracha, passed away. The papers printed the story of how a friend once asked him why he searched for Nazi criminals instead of resuming a profitable career in architecture – work which he had done before the war. Weisenthal gave this response:
“You’re a religious man. You believe in God and life after death. I also believe. When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, ‘What have you done?’ there will be many answers. You will say, ‘I became a jeweler.’ Another will say, ‘I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.’ Still another will say, ‘I built houses,’ but I will say, ‘I didn’t forget you.’”
The message was powerful. He explained that his life was dedicated to preventing another Holocaust, and to memory — not to revenge. But I also liked the idea itself – what questions we will be asked when we get to heaven.
Following are a few stories from our tradition – some more humorous, like about Hershel of Ostropol, some more serious, like about Weisenthal — but all regarding what we are asked when we get to heaven.
You may have heard the story that is told of the great Hasidic Rav Zusia who was dying and all his students were gathered around him, praying and crying. Then Zusia himself began to cry and one of his students said, “Rav Zusia, why are you crying? You have lived a righteous life, you have raised up students, and you will be received into the world to come.”
Rav Zusia answered his students, “I am crying because now I understand that, if God will ask me: Zusia, why weren’t you like Moses? I’ll have a ready answer – Lord, you didn’t give me the potential you gave to Moses.
If the Almighty will ask me: Zusia, why weren’t you like Maimonides? I will also have a ready answer – Lord, you neither gave me the gifts nor did you place me in a position similar to Maimonides.
But the Master of the Universe will not ask me these questions. He will ask: Zusia, why weren’t you like Zusia? Why didn’t you fulfill the task that only Zusia could have fulfilled? It is of this question that I am in dread – and if I will be asked it, I shall have no proper response!”
Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet, says: “To thine own self be true.” Follow your dreams; do what you believe is right.
I prefer the Jewish take on this story given by Jewish existentialist Martin Buber, who comments that in each person God has placed a unique way back to God, a unique route to the redemption of the world. In other words, you are only expected to make your contribution to the Jewish community and the world.
Rabbi Rafael of Barshad (19th century Europe) had a different concern about the questions he would be asked. He said: “When I get to Heaven, they’ll ask me, why didn’t you learn more Torah? And I’ll tell them that I’m slow-witted. Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you do more kindness for others? And I’ll tell them that I’m physically weak. Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you give more tzedakah? And I’ll tell them that I didn’t have enough money.
But then they’ll ask me: If you were so stupid, weak and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that I won’t have an answer.”
In another story, it is told that when Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the great rabbinic leaders of Germany in the 19th century was in frail health toward the end of his life, he decided to go on vacation in the Swiss Alps. This seemed like a somewhat strange and impulsive thing for such an eminent rabbi to do. So his students asked him – why are you making this trip? His response was: I have this feeling that after I die, and I am called in before God, I’m sure one of the questions that God will ask me is: So nu, Shimshon – you lived so close.did you ever get a chance to see my Alps?
Did you have a chance to see my Alps! Did you take advantage of all the beauty and goodness that I put into the world and that life has to offer?
The Talmud gives us more direction with its own specific list of questions that God will ask you when you get to heaven: I think the list is very interesting:
Were you honest in your business dealings?
Did you fix times for Torah?
Were you involved with your family?
Did you have hope in life (for the redemption)?
Did you seek out wisdom?
And finally – did you have an awareness of God – of a higher power in the universe? (Tractate Shabbos 31A)
Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), explains that these questions are an entrance exam to heaven. The test is to see whether we were concerned with material or the spiritual aspects of life. I think the list is interesting because it’s not asking you to be perfect: Instead of saying, ‘were you brilliant?’ or ‘how much did you learn?’ – it asks — did you have set time in the week to study? Instead of saying, ‘were you a perfect loving parent?’ – it asks – were you involved with your family?
Now I know that these stories can also make us feel uncomfortable — it is not pleasant to contemplate our death – so I’ll share with you a lighter story:
Three rabbis were talking about life and death when one asked: “When you’re in your casket and friends and congregants are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?”
The first rabbi said: “I would like them to say I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader and a great family man.”
The second commented: “I would like them to say I was a wonderful teacher and servant of God who made a huge difference in people’s lives.”
The third rabbi thought for a moment and remarked: “I’d like them to say, “Look, he’s moving!”
No one wants to imagine themselves at the end of their days. But I’ve shared with you these stories because they help us focus on what is important not at the end of our lives, but right here and now – today.
And they are uniquely appropriate for the themes of Yom Kippur. The philosopher, Franz Rosensweig taught that on Yom Kippur, we actually rehearse death. Think about it — we don’t eat. We recite Vidui, THE confession. We give up all the pleasures of life. We wear a Kittel, a simple white burial shroud. And we spend the day as if before the throne of judgment.
On this day, Rosensweig said, we look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. And from the perspective of eternity, what do our lives amount to? What’s important? What matters? What lasts? What counts?
That’s why these questions from heaven cut right to the chase. What are you most proud of having done in life — and what do you regret having done? How many dreams have been accomplished, and how many are left unfulfilled?
I began with Simon Weisenthal. Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in his eulogy, told the story of how, when Simon heard that the Nazis were carting off his mother in one of the cattle cars, he desperately ran after the train in an attempt to bid his mother a final farewell. She never heard the anguished cries of her loving son.”But Simon,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier turning to the casket, “She may not have heard you, but because of what you have accomplished, the whole world has heard you.”
The whole world, Jews and non- Jews alike heard Simon Weisenthal’s voice of conscience and justice. But we can also be inspired beyond the content and importance of his work – simply by the fact that he had something – a driving force – or goal to keep him focused until the day he died.
He had a job to do on earth and he continued to do it till the end. History and circumstances helped mold Wiesenthal’s unique character into a man with a purpose in life. He once said that he would continue his efforts “until the day I die.” I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if it helped him to live fully 96 years.
Maybe you and I have to work harder to find our purpose. Maybe we have to think harder to consider what gives our own life focus — but like Buber said, we each have our own path to God and to the redemption of the world.
I’d like to think we are all climbing up to heaven – I am climbing up Jacob’s ladder one step at a time. I’m in no rush. And I hope to see you on the way. I’ll give you a hand and maybe you’ll help me up too.
I can already begin to make out the questions I will be asked – some of them relate to my successes and others to the weaknesses of my character, my shortcomings, and my missed opportunities. When you get there — what will you be asked?
All year long, we grow in hubris. I know that many of us are writing down quite a few good questions of our own to ask God – Why the suffering? Why the illness? Why the storm? And God, why the war?
But today, I recommend putting those questions aside. There are other times for them. On Yom Kippur we sit and we are judged. On Yom Kippur, a new trial is beginning for you and on the judge’s bench sits the One who knows you best.
May we all live to 120 – may we all be blessed with years before we have to prepare our final case before the High Court. Just remember that when our time comes, there may be tough questions to face – but that we live more meaningful, fuller lives, by beginning to prepare the answers today.
G’mar chatima tova.
Rabbi Paul Arberman is rabbi of the Yedid Nefesh congregation in Modiin. He received ordaination from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 2003. Fee free to send comments or questions to Rabbi Arberman.