Last week, The Jerusalem Post "family" gathered somberly to mourn the deaths of two of its members: Meir (Mike) Ronnen and Abigail Radoszkowicz. Mike, 83, had retired after half a century of invaluable contribution to the paper as arts editor, cartoonist and book reviewer; Abigail, 53, worked diligently and dedicatedly at the Post for 19 years, latterly as editor of its opinion pages.
Mike, who from time to time visited the building in Romema where he spent so many fruitful years, had seemed hale and hearty, certainly for his age. For more than 20 years, whenever I asked him how he was, he would reply, semi-cynically, semi-humorously: "Aging rapidly."
To this, I would retort in similar vein, "That's all right, then."
A man of formidable achievements and a rich personal history that could have been shared among three or four people without any of them appearing lacking, his sudden illness and almost immediate demise came as a bewildering shock, his advanced years notwithstanding.
He was one of those people you felt would go on forever.
Abigail, were this a just world, should have lived to a ripe old age, enjoying her work, her friends, her four beautiful children and, in the fullness of time, grandchildren.
One moment she was there, working animatedly alongside us as we put out the paper; then suddenly - so abruptly, it seemed - she was gone, carried off by a cruel disease.
It defied comprehension.
THE real sting of death, it seems to me, lies in its finality, in the realization that these people are gone forever. They may live on in our memories, but their physical presence - fashioned from the mannerisms, gestures and expressions that made them uniquely "them" - has disappeared, quite literally into thin air.
When my mother died in 1987 at the age of 66, amid the bitterness that was an actual taste in the mouth that had me reaching out for chocolate to try to ease it, came this recurring thought, over and over, like a newsflash: Even if I live to be a very old lady, I will never see her again. It seemed too heavy, too colossal to internalize.
Our departed colleagues, also, are irretrievably lost to us.
AN aching vacuum. That's the reality of it for those left behind.
What about those who did the leaving?
Since, movies apart, no one who has died has actually returned from wherever they went, we don't know where that is. Some believe they haven't gone anywhere at all, that death is the absolute, total and categorical end of everything, the final curtain falling on the last act of the very last performance.
The body is a stupendous organism. The brain, in terms of ability, processing power and adaptability, has been compared - more than favorably - to the most sophisticated computer. But I find it hard to accept that body and brain constitute the sum total of a human being.
When you look deep into a person's eyes, you glimpse something no anatomist has ever described in a medical textbook. The soul? Spark of the Divine? I'm prepared to leave the question hanging until someone proves otherwise.
Our Yizkor memorial prayer for the departed includes a phrase I find incredibly moving every time I recite it. It describes the dead as having "gone to their world" (halchu leolamam). Even though our circumscribed understanding cannot fathom what that world may be, I get an image of somewhere purer and without pain.
Do they, from "their world," observe the behavior of us down here and, even more, intercede on our behalf with a Higher Power? Your guess is as valid as mine.
WHILE an afterlife is not directly mentioned in the Bible, Jewish thought treats heaven and hell as real places, at least in terms of reward and punishment. Many biblical texts speak of "the World to Come." Our liturgy proclaims the Resurrection of the Dead - which is why Jewish tradition mandates burying every tiny part of the deceased; and why many Orthodox Jews are opposed to autopsies and, though some halachic authorities have ruled it permissible and even meritorious, organ donation.
An actual physical resurrection? The departed returning wearing the fashions of their day, or maybe clad in flowing white robes? It's hard to conceive - too Cecil B. de Mille.
Yet some Orthodox Jews take tehiyat hameitim quite literally as a mega-event at the End of Days, something like the prophet Ezekiel's valley of dry bones raising themselves up as a living, breathing multitude (37:1- 14).
There is also a kabbalistic belief in the transmigration of souls - which puts a question mark over the whole notion of physical resurrection.
I WROTE that no one who has died has returned to tell us about it - but that isn't strictly true if you believe the more than 100 people claiming to have had a near-death experience that parapsychologist Raymond Moody interviewed in his 1975 book Life After Life. (It has sold 13 million copies, and was made into an award-winning film.)
Dr. Moody, who had been lecturing across the United States, found that after each lecture, people would come up to him and describe what had happened to them as the result of serious accident or illness. He thought it highly unlikely that these people, often separated by thousands of miles, knew each other or had coordinated their stories in any way.
After collating these accounts, Moody concluded that the following sensations were common to most people who have clinically or almost died: hearing a "buzzing" sound; having a feeling of peace and painlessness; experiencing themselves as floating above their bodies; traveling through a tunnel; feeling they were rising into the heavens and seeing people, often dead relatives; meeting a "spiritual being," and seeing a review of their lives.
If they were Christians, they said the spiritual being was Jesus; if they were Jewish, they called it an angel; if they subscribed to no religion, they described it as "a being of light."
They yearned to stay in this new place, Moody's interviewees told him, but were made to understand that their time on earth was not yet over and that they had to return - which they did via the same tunnel.
Asked what they had gleaned from their singular experience, many said they now knew their mission in the world: to exhibit as much love as possible for their fellow beings, and to learn as much as they were able.
IS ALL this true? It seems to me that it hardly matters. In fact, one might view the whole thing as a win-win situation.
If you believe Life After Life, you can gain comfort from the fact that you will eventually pass to a pain-free place of peace where you will, in some form, be reunited with your loved ones who have preceded you.
If you don't, if you hold that this world is all there is, the incentive is still there to live the best and fullest life you can. Since selfishness, indolence and dissipation are understood ultimately to bring only misery, caring about others and increasing one's knowledge may well bring considerable earthly rewards - never mind if there's a heaven or not.
AS FOR our colleagues, Abigail and Mike, their departure is still too fresh. It's impossible to believe that we won't come across them at work, or in some other venue. Their human essence is too present for us to accept that they are really gone. It will take time.