Hasidism, a mystical movement which burst upon the stage of Jewish history in the mid-eighteenth century, used story-telling as one of its primary modes of communication of spiritual teachings. In the folktales of Hasidism, we find profound gems of wisdom elaborating upon the ongoing sense of inter-connection between the world of the living, and the often unseen world of the dead.
Hasidic literature abounds with stories describing the deathbed experiences of many Hasidic Rebbes [Masters]. These stories are often very detailed and show how many Rebbes made the transition from physical plane life with a sense of equanimity and calm.
There were some Rebbes able to describe the visions they witnessed as death approached. In the hour before he died, Rabbi Shmelke of Sasov saw standing beside him his deceased father Rabbi Moshe Leib and his great teacher, Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov. (Martin Buber, Legends of the Hasidim, Vol. 2, p. 95). Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, shortly before his death, turned to his grandson and asked, “Do you see anything?” The boy looked at him in astonishment. Then the Rebbe said: “All I can see is the divine nothingness which gives life to the world.” (Buber, Legends of the Hasidim, Vol. 1, p. 271).
THE BAAL SHEM TOV’S DEATH
When the Baal Shem Tov fell ill shortly before his death, he would not take to his bed. His body grew weak, his voice faint, and he would sit alone in his room meditating. On the eve of Shavuot, the last evening of his life, his disciples gathered around him and he spoke to them about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the morning he requested that all of them gather together in his room and he gave his final instructions for burial to members of the Hevra Kaddisha. Afterwards he asked for a Siddur (prayer book) and said: “I wish to spend some time communing with Hashem Yitbarach (the Name, may He be blessed).
Then after his time spent in prayer and preparation for greeting the Angel of Death, he told his disciples that as a sign, at the moment of his death the two clocks in the house would stop.
The Baal Shem Tov then asked his disciples to sing Reb Zlotcher’s melody and they did so…After a while the Baal Shem Tov began to describe how the soul was leaving his body, first through the extremities, slowly, slowly…slowly…Then in a quiet voice he said: “Now I can no longer speak with you.” His disciples looked and noticed that at the moment, one clock in the house had stopped.
The Baal Shem Tov then motioned for his disciples to cover him with blankets and he began to shake and tremble as he did when praying the silent prayer. The final he grew quiet, inhaled his last breath of air, and there was no exhalation, only stillness, peace. At that moment, the disciples noticed that the second clock in the house had stopped too.
And those who buried the Baal Shem Tov said they had seen his soul ascend towards the heavens as a blue flame. (Buber, Vol. 1, pp. 83-84)
THE DEATH OF REB SHLOM OF KARLIN
When Reb Shlomo of Karlin was living in Ludmir, the Russians put down a revolt of the Poles in that region. The Russian commander, who had entered the town, gave his men permission to loot at will for two hours. It was a Sabbath day and the Jews were gathered in the House of Prayer. Rabbi Shlomo was praying in such ecstasy that he heard nothing and saw nothing that went on around him. Just then a tall cossack came limping along, went up to the window, looked in, and pointed his gun. In a ringing voice, the rabbi was saying the words, “for thine, O Lord, is the kingdom,” when his little grandson, who was standing beside him, timidly tugged at his coat, and he awoke from ecstasy. But the bullet had already struck him in the side. “Why did you fetch me down?” he asked. When they brought him to his house, he had them open the Zohar (the Book of Splendor) at a certain passage and prop it up in front of him while they bound his wound. It stayed there, open before his eyes until the following Wednesday, when he died. (Buber, Vol. 1, p. 284)
THE DEATH OF REB MIKHAL OF ZLOTCHOV
In the last two years before his death, Rabbi Mikhal fell into a trance of ecstasy time after time. On these occasions his face would glow and one could see that he clung to the higher life, rather than earthly existence. His children were always careful to rouse him from his ecstasy at the right moment, as they feared his soul only had one small step to pass over from this world. Once, after the third Sabbath meal, he went to the House of Study as usual, and sang songs of praise. He returned home, entered his room unaccompanied, and began to pace the floor. His daughter, who was passing his door, heard him repeat over and over: “Willingly did Moses die! Willingly did Moses die!” She was greatly troubled and called one of her brothers. When he entered he found his father lying on the floor on his back, and heard him whisper the last word of the confession, “One”, with his last breath. (Buber, Vol. 1, p. 156)
THE DYING REBBE: A MODEL FOR CONSCIOUS TRANSITION
These tales portray a religious environment in which humanity and divinity constantly interact. Through prayer, devotion, meditation, study and deeds of loving kindness, the Rebbe, and in turn, the Hasid, grow closer to God. In drawing closer to the moment of death, there is no reason to fear – for even in that experience God is to be found.
For the Rebbe, death is a time of conscious transition from one state of consciousness to another. “This world is like a vestibule before the World to Come” (Mishna Avot 4:21); and death is the gateway between the two worlds, the door into the heavenly spheres.
In the above stories, each Rebbe went through the death experience fully conscious and in tune with God. For the Zaddik [the Righteous One], in death the body is left behind while the soul continues to commune with its creator.
The description of the Baal Shem Tov’s deathbed experience may be seen as an “ideal model” for dying. His equanimity; control; connectedness with others, self and God; love; devotion; and consciousness on the deathbed are all exemplary in a society where many die alone and afraid.
The Hasidim have something to teach our contemporary society about life, the afterlife and how to die. These stories demonstrate that it is possible for individuals to die, as did Reb Nahman: bright and clear, with awareness intact, unencumbered by fear, and fully prepared for the gentle transition from this world of the living through the sacred portals into the world of souls.
Material above is extracted from Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Chapter 9, “Death and Afterlife in Hasidic Tales, pp. 342-345; also published as The Dying Rebbe: A Model for Conscious Transition” Gnosis, (December 1996), pp. 62-63.