Praying for Resurrection—Literally and Figuratively

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Parashat Ha'azinu

In every Amidah, we praise God as “the one Who gives life to the dead (מחיה המתים).”  What might we mean by this phrase?

In Parashat Ha’azinu, God speaks of a future time when the Jewish people will sin, and their enemies will defeat them.  But this victory is not eternal; God assures us that these enemies will ultimately be defeated.  In describing the restoration of Israel, God says:

דברים לב:לט
אֲנִי אָמִית וַאֲחַיֶּה 
מָחַצְתִּי וַאֲנִי אֶרְפָּא
Deuteronomy 32:39
I put to death and I make alive; 
I wound and I heal

Some commentators understand this to be referring to a national resurrection: a return of Israel to its glory.1  But a widespread midrashic tradition on this verse understands this as God’s power to give life to individuals who have died.2 

The idea that God can revive the dead became central to our prayers and Jewish theology in general.3 Indeed, the second blessing of the Amidah concludes: Blessed are You, YHVH, who gives life to the dead - מחיה המתים. But what does this “resurrection” entail?  Do we have to take it literally, or can we understand it in a more metaphorical way?  And what do we lose without the literal meaning?

Even in the Rabbinic tradition, the phrase “Who gives life to the dead” had multiple meanings.  The variety of other appropriate moments to recite the exact same blessing indicates the willingness of Hazal to see this statement more broadly than the literal raising of bodies from their graves.4

For example, in the tradition of the Talmud Yerushalmi, the prayer said upon waking was none other than our blessing:5

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ד:א דף ז טור ד
דבית ר' ינאי אמרין הנוער משנתו צריך לומר בא"י מחיה המתים 
Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1; 7d
The house of R. Yannai said: One who wakes from sleep must say, “Blessed are You, YHVH, Who gives life to the dead.”

According to the house of R. Yannai, waking up is a reason to thank God for raising the dead.  Indeed, other Rabbinic sources compare sleep to death,6 and there is “an ancient perception that sleep is a mortal threat and waking life something miraculous.”7

We often experience sleep as a relief, and are lulled into thinking that when we go to sleep we are guaranteed to wake up. But in the Rabbinic conception, sleep itself is a sort of death—a dropping from consciousness into another world—and our return from sleep is nothing short of a minor resurrection.8

But the broader image of “Who gives life to the dead” is not limited to sleep. In another instance of Rabbinic usage of this phrase, R. Yehoshua ben Levi mandated the following blessing: 

תלמוד בבלי ברכות נח:
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: הרואה את חבירו… לאחר שנים עשר חדש אומר, ברוך מחיה המתים.
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 58b
R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend… after 12 months, says, “Blessed… Who gives live to the dead.”

Seeing one’s friend after not being in touch for an entire year is an opportunity to bless God for raising the dead.  This was brought home for me recently in a contemporary story.  A mother and a daughter had stopped speaking for years.  But then one day, the daughter called the mother, and they started to cook together while talking over the phone.  As captured by the podcast The Daily,9 the mother said: “My daughter died, in a way.  And then my daughter was reborn again the day that she made that phone call.  And I feel so grateful.”

Death is not only an objective experience for the person who physically ceases to exist; you can also be “dead to someone” you simply lose touch with.  An aspect of death is about finality in relationships, and when a relationship, once thought over, begins again with a reconnection after 12 months, it is worthy of our blessing.  The circumstances in which we recite the blessing “Who gives life to the dead” offers us images in which we live out forms of rebirth that are part of the rhythm of life.10

Ultimately, though, in order to say this blessing with a full heart, we have to grapple with the main request of the literal meaning of the words: God’s power to physically give life to people after death.11  Certainly that was one way—if not the main way—these words were understood by Hazal, as indicated by the following text:

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ט:ב דף יג טור ד
העובר בין הקברות מהו אומר?  בא"י מחיה המתים.
Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:2; 13d
One who passes among the graves, what do they say?  Blessed are You, YHVH, Who gives life to the dead.12

In this instruction, contained within the larger collection of blessings to recite upon experiencing something powerful (e.g.  seeing lightning, a large mountain, the ocean), seeing graves occasioned a person to praise God’s ability to resurrect the dead—literally.  This blessing was also said in a house of mourning, presumably with the same connotation: the physically dead will come back to life (Bavli Ketubot 8b).13

It was this claim that caused many moderns in the 19th and 20th centuries to rewrite these words in the Amidah, “spiritualizing” them, and thus removing any possibility of interpreting them literally.14 

But to me, this aspect of the blessing provides the greatest example of believing in the seemingly impossible, and imagining a world that is not simply on a straight-line and predictable trajectory.  Nothing is more certain than death.  But what if death is not the final chapter of our story?  

While it might be tempting to dismiss the idea that our lives could be reconstituted in our bodies after death as something simply beyond reason, in fact I think it is more helpful to connect to the ways in which this resurrection is completely unimaginable to us.  As Jon Levenson argued, based on passages in Daniel and Isaiah, “postmortal existence is a radical transformation, not the indefinite prolongation of earthly life.”15  In other words, a corporeal return does not mean something we can understand or relate to directly.  It is not as simple as the body coming back in the form that we know it.  The future resurrection is indeed physical, and yet, unknown.  God can do the unimaginable—and there is no greater example of this than physical resurrection.  

The power of God to do something beyond human imagination is illustrated in the following midrash:16

מדרש תהלים בובר לא:ח
"אמונים נוצר ה'" (תהילים לא:כד)...
[אלו העונין אמן באמונה.  אומר שליח ציבור] ברוך מחיה המתים, ובאמונה עונין אמן, שמאמינים בכל כחם בהקב"ה שמחיה המתים, ועדיין לא בא תחיית המתים.
Midrash Tehillim 31:8, ed. Buber, p. 120b
“The faithful ones (emunim), YHVH guards them” (Psalm 31:24)...
This refers to those who say “amen” with faith.  The prayer leader says “blessed… Who gives life to the dead,” and with faith they answer “amen,” who believe with all their might that the Holy Blessed One will revive the dead, even though reviving the dead has not yet happened.

The midrash uses the example of God reviving the dead as something that has never happened, but we still believe can happen, demonstrating our faith.  What is striking to me is another example of the power of God in the continuation of the same midrash:

אומר השליח [צבור] בונה ירושלים, והן עונין אמן, ועדיין היא בחורבנה, ומאמינים בהקב"ה שהוא עתיד לבנותה.
The prayer leader says: “[Blessed is God] who rebuilds Jerusalem,” and they answer “amen,” even though Jerusalem is in ruins.  But they believe that the Holy Blessed One will rebuild it in the future.17

In the midrash, the possibility that God will rebuild a destroyed Jerusalem is as unlikely and unimaginable as God reviving the dead.  Indeed, in the early Middle Ages (when this midrash was first told), this restoration of Jerusalem from a city in ruins seemed absolutely impossible.  And yet, it came to pass.  Can we be so certain that some form of physical resurrection is also absolutely impossible?

When I say the words “Who gives life to the dead” in the Amidah, I sometimes think about the small, minor “resurrections” that happen to us all the time, like waking up to a new day or rekindling old relationships.  But I also think about how to hope for the seemingly impossible.  Just because resurrection has never happened does not mean that it could not happen tomorrow, perhaps even in a way that might completely defy our preconceptions.  One of the aims of prayer is to cultivate a sometimes irrational hope for a different future.  In giving words to this hope, prayer can highlight the contrast between the way the world is—in this case: full of death and tragedy—and the way the world could be—death not having the final word.  The coming of that reality is also a focus of my prayer.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 See Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, Hizkuni, and Ha-Amek Davar to Deuteronomy 32:39.

2 See Bavli Pesahim 68a; Sanhedrin 91b; Sifrei Devarim #329, ed. Finkelstein, p. 379; Midrash Tannaim, ed. Hoffmann, p. 202; Midrash ha-Gadol, ed. Fisch, p. 729-730; Kohelet Rabbah 1:4, ed. Hirshman, pp. 34-36.

3 This extends back to the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, according to Josephus in Antiquities 18.1.4 and War 2.8.14.  Compare Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1.  See also the essay of my teacher and colleague, R. Yitz Greenberg, “Resurrection as a Core Tenet of Judaism.”

4 See also the various actions of God in this blessing of the Amidah that refer to mini-resurrections, like “Who brings the wind and makes the rain fall and (thereby) sustains life,” “Who supports the fallen,” “Who heals the sick.”  I explore all of these images in my forthcoming book about the Amidah.  For now, see my teaching recorded and available on our website.  See also n. 10 below.

5 Today’s prayer recited upon waking, Modeh Ani, is a relative newcomer to Jewish liturgy, first published by R. Moshe ibn Makhir in 1599.  See Moshe Hallamish, Hekrei Kabbalah U-Tefillah (Be’er Sheva: Ben Gurion University Press, 2012), pp. 46-51.  It is a development of Elohai Neshamah, which includes the phrase “modeh ani lefanekha - I am grateful before You” (see Bavli Berakhot 60b).

6 Bereishit Rabbah 17:5, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 156-157; Bavli Berakhot 57b.

7 Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 187.

8 Abudraham (ed. Braun, p. 218) also mentions sleep as one of two examples of a mini-resurrection (in addition to rain).  Indeed, one version of our blessing used on Rosh Hashanah substitutes the phrase “להחיות מתים - who gives life to the dead” with “להחיות נרדמים - who gives life to those who sleep.”  See Yisrael Mordechai Feles, “Yesh Omrim Be-Rosh Hashanah Nirdamim,” Moriah 17 (1990), pp. 106-108.

9 New York Times Podcast: The Daily at 17:30.  The emotion displayed by the mother in uttering these words is quite powerful to hear.  The story begins at 14:32.

10 Reuven Kimelman, “The Literary Structure of the Amidah and the Rhetoric of Redemption,” in W.G. Dever and E.J. Wright, eds., Echoes of Many Texts (Atlanta: Georgia, 1997), p. 207: “The aim [of this blessing] is to increase the plausibility of the not yet available resurrection by grounding it in experiences that are available, such as seasonal revival, birth, life, raising the fallen, healing the sick, freeing the fettered, and awakening, all of which can be conceived of as diminutives of resurrection.”

11 “To the rabbis who formulated or canonized Gevurot, the resurrection of the dead was not dispensable” (Levenson, Resurrection, p. 10).

12 Compare Tosefta Berakhot 6:6, ed. Lieberman, p. 34.

13 See also Tosefta Berakhot 3:24, which Saul Lieberman considers part of a special Birkat ha-Mazon said in a house of mourning (Tosefta Kifshutah, vol. 1, p. 51).

14 This shift was often expressed as a belief in immortality (often through the memory of others) but not through literal bodily resurrection.  See Jakob Petuchowski, “‘Immortality - Yes; Resurrection - No!’ Nineteenth-Century Judaism Struggles With A Traditional Belief,” PAAJR 50 (1983), pp. 133-147; Levenson, Resurrection, p. 7.  American Reformers “made the denial of Resurrection practically an article of faith” (Jacob Petuchowski, Prayer Book Reform in Europe [New York: World Union of Progressive Judaism, 1968], p. 215).  A  19th century Orthodox thinker, R. Joseph Seliger, also “denied the notion of physical resurrection.  He regarded it as a primitive, foreign import.” (Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology [Oxford: Littman, 2004] p. 154).  For more on other liturgical changes to this blessing see Neil Gillman, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1997), pp. 189-214.

15 Levenson, Resurrection, p. 189

16 I also discussed this midrash and its connection to the word “amen” in my essay on Parashat Ki Tavo, “The Power of ‘Amen.’

17 This version of the midrash is drawn from Siddur Rashi 51, ed. Freimann, p. 32.  Compare the other versions in Midrash Tehillim 31:8 above and in the following sources: Sefer ha-Manhig #54, ed. Rappel, p. 90; Sefer ha-Eshkol, ed. Albeck, p. 42; Sefer Abudraham, ed. Braun, p. 220; Menorat ha-Ma’or (Al-Nakawa), ed. Enelow, vol. 2, p. 145; Mahzor Vitry, ed. Goldschmidt, vol. 1, p. 40.