I was not born – I was removed from my mother dead. It was the doctor who breathed life into me. So began a life filled with pain and trauma: four other near-death experiences, multiple traumatic illnesses (including hepatitis), a lung disease that led to 3 collapses, a massive shingles episode that has added to my chronic excruciating pain for the past eleven years, and much more. And yet while I have lived constantly with immense pain, I have rarely suffered. Pain is a state of body, suffering is a state of mind. I only suffer when I lose my attachment to my soul. When I regain it, the suffering leaves and I’m left only with pain and the illnesses.
The Talmud says of sleep that it is one-sixtieth of death and that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy.
I have never spoken or written before about any of my 5 near-death experiences. Their power is so profound and their nature so mystical that I have never wanted to expose them to anyone. I do so now, at 71 years old, with anyone who cares to know what I have learned about life, death and life again. So, what have I learned?
So many have pondered and written about death, but I have known it enough times that I speak out of experience – not out of philosophy or mysticism. At first, our dreams and visions come to us in the language and images with which we are familiar. Then at some moment, if we’re lucky, we are able to rise out of those earthly images into higher levels of vision. Each of my near-death experiences provided me with one of these fleeting moments, reflected in pieces of my dreams and visions in this world. There is no question that the death of this body is painful, frightening and tragic. Having lived in a body that has known moments of strength and vitality, I’ve learned that all of that can disappear in an instant like a tree falling in a forest.
I reflect now on how I both recovered and sustained myself after each of the experiences. I have learned that the body can heal, if the mind and soul will work together to achieve it. At this stage of my life, age proves that ultimately the body is not repairable. My mind and soul struggle with the moment when they must leave it. In each of my near-death experiences, that fearful journey has in fact been joyful and filled with hope, knowing that my soul takes my life with me. What others have called the tunnel for me is the experience of shedding this physical body. Its lessons are to be woven into the fabric of an evolving existence that reaches through many levels and many worlds of being, until it returns to its source.
The Hardest Part is Coming Back to Life
What I have experienced there, at the end of the tunnel, is such a relief that I am in awe of what I now know my soul to be, as it is greeted by and merges with the souls that accept it. I have peered through the veil to understand what awaits my soul before I have been sent back. In each experience of transition and transformation, it is the return that has been the most painful. As our tradition says, the body is to the soul as a flame is to a wick. Compressing the limitless being of my soul back into attachment with this shattered body, to be present again in this world, is more difficult that anything I have struggled with in all of my illnesses.
While I am overjoyed to return to this world, especially to be with my family, Eva and my three children, Rachael, Jesse and Naomi, all my friends and all my work, I have also been sad at this necessity. Each of these moments of dying, death and rebirth, have taught me that there is no afterlife. There is only, as in all stages of growth in this life, simply a new stage of growth of the soul. Each of these moments of near death have added to my knowledge and understanding of what it is I must be and do here: Both to heal my soul in its journey, and to help others in the healing of theirs. This is what I have spent my life doing in one form or another.
How Does One Heal a Soul?
Continual and devoted devekut – attachment to the presence of the Holy one – is what guides me through my lessons in each of these seeming tragedies. Devekut is the mystics way of describing what contemporary psychological theory calls attachment. The bonding between mother and child, which is the very first stage of brain development is an analog to the most fundamental attachment, not only to the Holy presence, but to each other. It is this constant experience, of devekut, which has made it possible for me to remain in the present and not be pulled into the pain and recrimination of the past or the fear of the future that is so painfully uncertain.
For me this attachment is through prayer, meditation, Kabbalah (which I learned at a very young age from my grandmother), medical treatments, and complementary healing experiences. I have always placed the Holy One before me: Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid (Psalm 16:8). These challenges have been part of my education and a test of my faith and trust in the healing powers of His/Her presence. For the last 44 years it has also been the presence of my loving wife, Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins, who has provided the Shechinah healing that continually sustains me – especially during these eleven years of what has seemed like unimaginable torture.
I live in gratitude every moment, blessing the bad along with the good. When I lose that focus, the pain overwhelms. It is the call of my soul and the presence of Eva that guides me back.