When I hear news of a death, I feel as though I'm clicking into a higher gear. Life gets faster, details sharper. Everything extraneous falls away. On a practical level (in the world of assiyah) there are so many things which need to be decided: when will the funeral be held? How many nights of shiva does the family wish to observe? Is the obituary drafted, have family members been notified...?
On an emotional level (in the world of yetzirah) there's a heightened sense of awareness. It's as though a sense-organ which usually lies dormant has been wakened. How do the family members seem to be feeling? What does this seem to be like for them, what do they need from me, how can I be there for them? And then there's my own emotional landscape: what is this awakening in me? I file that away to be considered at a later time.
Intellectually (in the world of briyah) there's the task of writing the hesped, the eulogy. The goal is to write something meaningful, something which gives a sense for the life which has now ended. The hesped needs to tell stories. It needs to feel real. And it needs to be utterly transparent: this isn't about me as a writer, not about my oratory skills or turns of phrase. It's about the life I'm trying to honor as best I can. My job is to get out of the way.
Spiritually (in the world of atzilut), all of those things intermingle. Death is a doorway into the unknown, a brush with Mystery. I think of it as returning to the Cosmic Source from which we came, like drops of water -- having spent a lifetime falling in slow motion over the waterfall as individual droplets -- rejoining the mighty rush of the river. But it's one thing to say that, and another thing to really face the fact that a life has come to its end, that a soul has gone beyond where we can reach.
The physical world, the emotional world, the intellectual world, the spiritual world. These four worlds are hinted-at, say the kabbalists, in the four letters of God's holiest Name. Those same letters can be mapped on to the human form. Each of us is an expression of that Name. Each of us contains worlds within us. When someone dies, their unique manifestation of those worlds returns to its Source. We are all reflections of that Name; in that sense we are all the same. And we're also all different.
One of my favorite text from Talmud speaks about how God is greater than Caesar. Because when Caesar puts his image, his likeness, on every coin in the realm they all look identical. But when God puts God's image, God's likeness, on every human being we are all different. (Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written beautifully about this: God & Caesar - the Image on the Coin.) We are each a facet of God's image; all alike, because we all contain a holy spark -- and all different, because God is infinite.
When the body's life has ended, the soul returns to the One from Whom it came. From the finitude of a single human body and a single human consciousness, to the infinity of our Source. I believe that there is no suffering on the "other side." I believe that all of our human hurts and fears melt away as we rejoin Infinity. And I know that no matter what I believe about what happens after death, right now my faith isn't as important as my obligation to try to tend to and care for those who grieve.
(Image source: Kol ALEPH.)