Do we really see our loved ones after they die? Is it true that we can see deceased loved ones before we die? Do the dead really come back and visit us? Do we have visions of those who have departed? Can they contact us and send us signs that they are alright? The answer is simple and not so simple.
I had a congregant named Risa who was an amazing artist. Her whole house was a living legacy to the art she created. She was an excellent communicator through her art, but not a great communicator in person. In fact, she was a bit of a yeller. She loved to yell at people. People who knew her and knew this about her, understood that she wasn’t being unkind. Risa – she was very passionate about life and about a lot of things. But her number one way of communicating – even over email (remember ALL CAPS?) was to yell!
As her rabbi, I didn’t mind a bit and didn’t personalize it. To know her was to love her. So, when her cancer had advanced, and she wanted me to come and see her, I got an ALL CAPS email telling me so. And because I adored her I went to see her. She told me that she had been having visions of her father visiting her – during the night. She asked me if I believed her and I assured her I did. It was important to her that I didn’t think she was crazy. I didn’t. I had heard many stories of people seeing loved ones approaching before they passed away. Unfortunately, by the next time I went to see her a few weeks later, her cancer had advanced. It had affected her ability to communicate. I couldn’t understand her words, but she was letting me know she was ready to go and that her father was there to help her. Risa died a few days after my final visit.
Jewish literature’s most famous example of the dead coming back to visit us was the story of King Saul. Necromancy (calling up the dead) was forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:11. However, King Saul finds a witch who conjures up the Prophet Samuel to inquire about his fate. Scholars dispute whether the witch was really performing necromancy. Some say she just needed the money and was lying to Saul. Saadia Gaon (Talmudic scholar, Rabbi) posited that Saul experienced a miracle. Usually the dead do not come back to talk to us.
Months after Risa died, I dreamed I woke up in the middle of the night and “saw” someone standing at the foot of my bed. She was yelling at me, and it took me a little while to understand that I was seeing (and hearing!) Risa. I recognized her yell. She was letting me know that her daughters had nowhere to spend the Jewish High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah had been her favorite holiday. She made me assure her that I would do something about it. Of course, when one is deep in REM sleep, it isn’t difficult to agree to anything to be able to get back to bed. But when I woke up, I knew I had agreed to act.
So, I called her daughters and asked them to join me for the meal on erev Rosh Hashannah. Her oldest daughter asked if they could also bring their cousin, to which I agreed. At dinner, I spoke with the cousin and confessed that I had invited them because of my dream about Risa. How she’d yelled at me and told me to take care of her daughters.
The next day, after services, her oldest daughter called me and was a bit shaken. Her cousin had spilled the beans and told her the story of my dream about Risa. She was shocked. The idea of spending their first Rosh Hashanah alone was distressing to both her and her sister.
It is possible for us to see our loved ones after they die. It is safer and easier for them to come to us in dreams. Sometimes they send us signs (I will cover this topic in a later blog). Both Talmud and Torah talk about the deceased sending us signs and that we will see our loved ones again.