Thursday, November 3, 2011

What happens next? Reflections on Steve Jobs' last words

In the last few days, many people have been talking about the eulogy that Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs' sister, gave at his funeral. More specifically, her sharing of his last words:

The Huffington Post reported: In a stirring eulogy delivered at Jobs' memorial, held at Standford University's Memorial Church on October 16, Simpson revealed the last words Jobs uttered mere hours before he died. Her tribute to her brother was reprinted by the New York Times on October 30. According to the Times' printed version, Simpson said Jobs had been looking at the members of his family, gathered around his bed, when he gazed past them and said," OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW."

Much has been said by media pundits, blogged, and talked about in homes, over coffee and around water coolers, about what those last words might have meant. I'm not going to provide 'the answer', or even 'a Jewish answer'. We simply don't know. Way back in the Talmud (compilation of Rabbinic writings from approx. 0-500 CE), Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania said, 'When they come to life again, we will consult about the matter.' (Niddah 70b). Of course, this in itself might be understand as the declaration of a particular belief - that one day the dead will rise again. But this quote came to mind because, in effect, ben Chanania is also saying that we simply aren't able to say with any certainty what happens after we die and until someone comes back to our world to tell us how it is, we're not going to be able to reach any conclusions.

What is interesting to me is the widespread response to Steve Jobs' last words. A few weeks ago I was discussing beliefs about God with some of my eighth grade class. One group that I was talking to largely expressed that they didn't think they believed in something after death, but that they wished they did - they liked the idea, and found it comforting. In a recent discussion about death and dying at Fairfield University where I was a guest speaker, some students expressed belief in a heaven, but they no longer held to the idea that one would be judged and one's destination depended on choices in this world. Perhaps there was just one 'place' where we all went, and perhaps it was more a transferral of energy or awareness, but not an actual physical place. Some expressed that it was in actions, family, and memory that we 'lived on', but only in those kinds of realms in this world.

While we may not be able to achieve clarity of answer, both the ideas we have and the questions we have about life after death are core questions that human beings have pondered since we walked on this earth. Every culture, every civilization, and every religion has had one or more ways of responding to the question. The great Jewish teacher and philosopher of the twelfth century, Maimonides, wrote extensively of the ideas found among the Jewish people in his introduction to Perek Helek. Maimonides was largely dismissive of most the mainstream ideas of his time, and implied that they taught us more about what people valued in this world than informed us of the truth of what happens when we die.
As a Rabbi, I've had enough exchanges with people about near death experiences, or the sense of presence of a loved one after they have died, that I have come to believe that something continues after our physical death on this earth. I've had personal experiences that have brought me to that place of believing in an energy - what some might call the Soul - that goes on. And, while I know those same experiences could be explained in other ways, I find my belief comforting and I believe it is comforting to others. An important part of my faith involves being able to live in the space of 'not knowing'. I am able to experience the mystery of life and Creation in a deep and visceral way when I am able to occupy that space of not knowing. This is an important part of my spiritual awareness.

And so, while I don't know what Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, saw or felt in his last breaths, I hope his soul is united again with the energetic source of all existence. I hope it is quite incredible - the kind of incredible to which we might only be able to utter 'Oh wow!'
Rachel Gurevitz

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