23rd July 2022, Do NDEs (Near Death Experiences) provide an insight into the “Olam Haba”? – Leslie Wheeler

Judaism devotes itself to the here and now, the “Olam azi” but belief in the afterlife “Olam haba” is also core to Judaism. Just as when God formed Adam from the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life “Neshamah” so to all of us when we entered this world were given a spark of the divine.

Probability studies have been performed to evaluate the odds of each and every one of us being born into this world. While no one knows the precise probability of being born Dr Ali Binazir MD MPhil calculates the figure at 1 in 10^2,685,000 putting it bluntly each and every one of us here today is an absolute miracle!

So what happens when this miracle of life come to an end? One of the biggest mysteries in life is what happens after death. Humans have been trying to find the answer since man realised that death meant someone was gone forever. But where do we go—or do we go anywhere?

There are those who believe that each of us is composed of 60 chemical elements with 96 percent of our bodily mass made up of just four of these elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen and that when our time is up in this world, that’s it! Its over! Nothing further! Kaput! The end!

There are those who believe as I do, in having a non-physical, spiritual entity that nefesh that has accompanied me in this life and will remain with me into the Olam Haba.

Descriptions of the Olam Haba are often quite vague and contradictory. Deuteronomy 32:22 makes reference to a fiery Sheo’l (Sheo’l is a place deep in the ground where the souls of both the good and the evil reside). “ For the fire has flared my wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheo’l, has consumed the earth and its increase, eaten down the base of the hills”. Much later writings as in the Book of Job 26:5-6 describes a watery Sheo’l: “The shades tremble beneath the waters of their denizens. Sheo’l is naked before Him; Abbaddon has no cover”.

Flavius Josephus the 1st Century CE Jewish historian in his reference to the after world writes: “Agreeing with the sons of Greeks, they declare that an abode is reserved beyond the Ocean for the souls of the just; a place oppressed neither by rain nor snow nor torrid heat, but always refreshed by the gentle breeze blowing from the Ocean. But they relegate evil souls to a gloomy and stormy dungeon, full of unending chastisement”.

The depiction in the Vatican by Michelangelo’s portrait of the ‘last judgment’ describes Charon the boatman throwing the damned souls out of his boat into a fiery hole.

According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), when the soul leaves the body it detaches itself from the world of physicality and starts its entry into the 4 stages of the higher worlds. The first stage encountered is the ” Judgment” stage, often referred to as “the Heavenly Court,” where good deeds and bad are weighed on a celestial scale that determines the soul’s verdict.

Now to the question posed by the title of my sermon: Do NDEs (Near Death Experiences) provide an insight into the “Olam Haba”?

Thanks to advanced medical care, it has become increasingly common for people on the verge of dying to be revived and returned to normal consciousness, even after their body has begun to shut down. Medical researchers refer to these episodes beyond life as NDEs: Near-Death Experiences.

It cannot be verified that these NDE’s represent a true insight into the Olam Haba. However most individuals who have encountered them describe some very common themes:

  • Intense emotion, energy, wellbeing and love
  • Rapid energy and movement towards an indescribable light
  • A life review, reliving actions and feeling their emotional impact on others, being judged.
  • Returning to the body

In his book, Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death, Dr. Sam Parnia Professor of Medicine at Stony Brook University, draws on his medical expertise in resuscitation to recount the testimonies of those who were clinically dead, only to have their heart start beating again after some time. One such stunning case is of a young tennis professional named Lauralynn who was undergoing a routine operation. The procedure was only supposed to last 20 minutes but a doctor’s accidental puncture of her abdominal aorta caused severe blood loss. Lauralynn went into cardiac arrest and died on the operating table. Lauralynn had an out-of-body experience at this point: She could see herself on the table and doctors frantically working, but felt no stress or sense of dread. Free of pain and fear, Lauralynn recalled “seeing a bright warm light on the horizon that beckoned her… It was a place of unconditional love; it was a place I would never want to leave. Suddenly, woosh I was going up through this tunnel…. And then the next thing I knew, I was out in this grey misty place…. And then this man came towards me like a misty light-filled-in outline and he said, “Come with me and I’ll show you your life.” The thing I most remember having pointed out to me was when I was throwing stones at my brother and sister. I was about 9 or 10, and I was really angry and frustrated, and they were really upset. Seeing this I was ashamed and then the man took me away from that.”(Sutherland 1995:148).

Now as a comparison I’d like to describe to you my NDE but first a little background. The year was 1962 and as a member of Flag Aircraft Carriers Staff I had just completed 4 years away from home sailing the globe aboard different aircraft carriers belonging to the Royal Navy. I suppose I had become a little homesick so being drafted to HMS Sea Hawk the Royal Navy Air Station in Helston Cornwall was a bit like manna from heaven to this homesick Cornishman.

I was assigned to ‘Ships Duties’ better described as a “Job-nick” however as I held a full motor cycle licence, after some initial military training I was allocated the role of  “dispatch rider”. The role entailed riding a BSA Bantam motorcycle and delivering confidential documents between the various departments on the Air Station. Life was good for me, I was in my home county of Cornwall and my job-nick role wasn’t particularly arduous, that was until I became involved in a head-on collision with an airfield fire tender. I remember nothing about the accident but was to learn that I had suffered serious head, spine and leg injuries. I was taken to the Royal Naval hospital in Devonport where, still unconscious, the medical staff were soon to realise I was suffering from spinal meningitis. Now in a critical condition it was decided to fly me by helicopter from the Naval Hospital in Devonport to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol where they specialised in head injuries.

Unconscious and seriously ill I remember the helicopter journey as though it were yesterday. The helicopter was upside down with it main rotor below the surface of the sea. I felt a great urgency to manoeuvre  the helicopter towards the red oxide hull of a moored ship. Once the rotor blades had impacted the ships hull I was thrown towards this bright warm and welcoming light. I’m unsure if I ever reached the light as the next event I recall was being aboard an old sailing ship. I was seated alone with what resembled rows of very old wooden chairs all of them finished with woven hessian seats. I remember the distinct smell of hemp and sisal. In front of me standing in what resembled a raised lectern, were 4 men wearing black gowns, white neckerchiefs and head coverings. They were asking me questions in rapid succession about actions I had taken during my life.  Each question was accompanied by a panoramic view of the activity and further described how my actions had impacted others. Fortunately for me the medical team at Frenchay hospital had successfully cured the spinal meningitis and I was able to return to the Naval hospital to continue treatment to the injuries still affecting my leg and spine.

Much later when I had recovered sufficiently I was asked to attend a meeting with Surgeon Lieutenant Chapman and the nursing Sister who had accompanied me during the helicopter flight to Frenchay hospital in Bristol. Also in attendance was my Grandfather who had been my guardian from when I was aged 10. Lieutenant Chapman began by explaining just how lucky I was to be alive. He further described how during the flight I had suffered a cardiac arrest and was resuscitated! He then explained that as a result of my injuries I would be medically discharged from the military. This came as a bit of a shock but nothing had prepared me for the shock that was about to follow when my grandfather made the following statement to the Surgeon Lieutenant: “I realise the severity of the injuries my grandson has suffered and I thank you for saving his life but he is no longer the same person we knew before the accident, he has changed and we no longer recognise him”. His words still haunt me to this day.

Two years later I was finally discharged from the Royal Navy and although I encountered many knocks and bruises I eventually settled into life as a civilian and the Near Death Experience had faded into the background of my memories. That was until 20 years ago when I visited the Beit Din in London to be accepted into the family of Israel. Walking through the wood panelled doors of the Beit Din I found myself being seated alone facing 4 rabbis dressed in dark suits with their heads covered asking me so many questions concerning Judaism and why I wanted to be a Jew? The similarities to those of my NDE were both striking and at the same time nerve racking.

Could my near death experience be attributed to hallucinations due to my weakened bodily state?….I don’t know! I also have no idea when I finally leave this world that I will encounter again similar events to those of my near death experience. But of one thing I am certain, when I leave the Olam azi, that spark of the divine given to me at birth will continue its journey to a higher level into the Olam haba!

Shabbat shalom