A Mission from the Heavenly Court
Alon Anava never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would be called to the Heavenly court and would undergo an experience that would turn his world upside down. He entered a taxi healthy on his way home from a "Passover party", and then, without prior notice, his soul flew out of his body and went to heaven. An instructive and chilling story of a man who faced an intense trial in the Heavenly court, and then, at the last minute, on the threshold of hell, was offered the deal of his life (literally and figuratively) which he grabbed with both hands
It happened 12 years ago. Rabbi Alon Anava was a young 28 year old secular Jew who had everything. He left Israel at the age of 23, settled in a prestigious district in New York, opened a successful small business, and found himself surrounded by many friends, pleasures and money. It appeared that nothing could break down the solid wall that surrounded him, certainly nothing to do with Judaism. But just then, at the height of feeling he had the whole world in his hands, the young man experienced a jolting metaphysical experience of clinical death, an experience that dramatically changed the dissolute life that he had lived until then.
"I know my story may sound strange to you," he cautions the audience before each lecture where he tells his story, "but I promised to tell all, so I'm here to fulfill my promise."
Saturday, the fourteenth of Nisan, the eve of Passover, is a time when Jews all over the world are preparing to get rid of their leaven, to go out of their bondage and exile, and enter a world with a completely different dimension of freedom. At such a sacred time, the streets of Manhattan are still bustling with life. Cars are honking, and people crowd the New York subways on their way to somewhere and from somewhere. People are running to and fro — and Alon Anavah was among them. "I was at the time on the farthest, darkest side imaginable," says Anavah glumly, "an atheist who with all his might refused to hear the slightest thing about Judaism."
A friend who was a party organizer, suggested he take part in a Passover party he was organizing. This party was a thousand light years away from anything to do with Judaism, but to attract a large number of young Jews and Israelis, it was decided to call it by this name.
"As part of our partnership, I had to invest about $10,000 in cash — an amount that would double itself, or at least that’s what my friend promised. As someone who ran a business and who was endowed with an excellent business sense, I smelled that this was a golden opportunity to make a lot of money in a short time, and I agreed."
At the end of the evening, Anavah realized how right he was. "My friend came up to me and called me for an urgent discussion at the side. ‘Here's the amount you invested,’ he said, and stuck $10,000 in cash in my hand, ‘and here is your profit.’ His eyes shone when he counted out another $15,000 and handed them to me with a big smile. I put the money in my pocket, thanked him and returned to what I was doing.”
"I knew I was going to die"
At a certain stage, Anavah felt a sharp pain in his heart and wanted to leave the party and go home. A friend called a cab and they entered it together. Suddenly, an overwhelming dizziness seized him, and he felt as certain as the sun is shining, that he was going to die. It was as simple as that. "Suddenly I could not breathe. I rushed to open the window but it didn’t help. I knew I was going to die, and as a result I was gripped with great fear."
Even today, having already reached the age of 40, Rav Anavah holds his head as if trying to unite the fragments of his thoughts, experiencing the pain with exactly the same intensity and the same dose. "It’s impossible to explain in words what I felt. Suddenly the whole world froze. I looked sideways and nothing moved. And just seconds before my soul left my body, I had my first spiritual experience: For the first time, I realized that I had a soul, and secondly, I knew that there was a Creator of the world."
When I asked him how it feels to exit from one’s body, Anavah answers that it feels like a kind of awakening, like a kind of “curtain being lifted before one’s eyes.
"You feel as if you entered an ongoing dream, which is a hundred times more real than life itself, and you clearly know that you're going to meet your Creator. This was the point where I was filled with great fear, because I realized that the only thing I could offer and show the Creator — was missing. I didn’t have even half a mitzvah.
“In this dream I suddenly remembered all the money I had in my pockets, and felt that it was nothing but dirt. You see the absurdity? All my life I was chasing after something to which I ascribed sublime value, and suddenly, in seconds, I started to catch on it is nothing, it is not worth anything to the place where I'm going.
"In those seconds when my soul left my body, I felt like a man jumping off a high bridge into the abyss, and a few seconds before he dies he realizes, ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ All my life I lived as a totally evil person, and couldn’t care less about anything to do with the commandments. I hated religious people, just as Rabbi Akiva said, 'Just give me a Torah scholar and I will bite him like a donkey.’
“And precisely in those moments, a second before I left this world, I had thoughts of repentance. I remember feeling how alienated I was from G-d while also knowing that there was nothing but G-d. As soon as I realized this, I covered my eyes and said the Shema: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the L-rd is one."
Watching a hundred thousand screens simultaneously
After saying “Hear O Israel”, Anavah’s head slumped down. "There was silence and suddenly I realized that I was no longer in my body. I felt I was floating like a cloud and I was beyond the limitations of time. Thoughts kept coming like waves into my head. I thought to myself: 'What happened, where am I, how did I get here?', And then a voice came from somewhere and told me, 'You're dead.' A kind of dialogue began between us, until at some point I realized that the voice was hinting to me to look down."
To his great astonishment, when he looked down, he saw his body sprawled next to his friend in the cab, looking weak and limp. Then he realized the extent of the loss. "When I realized that the one looking down was actually my soul, and what it sees is me — now dead — the thought hit me: ‘So that's it? That's how my life is ending? I died just like that? That's what they’ll remember of me? Alon Anavah went to conquer America and ended his life in a cab in New York?' I was confused. It was almost surreal.
Alon during the period prior to becoming religious
"In those seconds, I also saw my parents announcing my death and how they mourned my departure. The scene was a jumble in terms of time. A place where the future, past and present merged, and yet, the picture created seemed very logical.”
At this point the driver realized that something unpleasant was going on in his taxi and he immediately pressed down on the gas pedal and sped to the hospital. "I was floating above the cab, and when it passed under a small railroad bridge, I passed along with it, but I was in a real bridge."
The taxi continued on its way, galloping between the skyscrapers with Anavah floating above like a bird, passing between the buildings and viewing hundreds of apartments as if they didn’t have walls. "Our problem in this world is that we're confined to a limited body," smiles Anavah at seeing my disbelief, "but when a soul is out of its body, it has no barriers. It sees everything and is everywhere at the same time."
"I promised to tell everything that happened"
I want to stop you for a moment and spend some time on an important point. What you've described so far is a very frightening personal experience, if a person doesn’t have the tools to analyze it properly — he can very easily think you are trying to fear-monger in order to convince him to switch to your side, to become strictly religious. What would you say to such a person?
"The first thing you should tell him is that I understand him, that I was also on the skeptical and disbelieving side. I have no intention to fear-monger, but to tell what I personally experienced. It's true that what I'm saying is not 'easy' to absorb. it was a spiritual experience, and until one experiences it oneself — it is difficult to understand. I only want to relate what happened to me, because I promised to do so in the heavenly court.
“I can not control how people will react to my story. There are all kinds of people in the world, and each person perceives things and processes them in a different way. I just hope and pray that anyone reading the article will understand that there is no intention to intimidate people, but only to show them the truth and to urge them not to ignore it."
Alon Anavah, today
So what happened afterwards?
"At some point I saw a shining point of light coming closer and closer to me. I had attained a capacity of wisdom in which I saw the world from when it was created until the last day — and suddenly it all made sense in my head: the diseases, the Holocaust, the suffering, people exploding. Here everything looks like chaos, but over there, the plan is perceived as perfect and brilliant, all the details are arranged in an exemplary manner! Experiencing it was the greatest pleasure, it was simply indescribable. A taste of Paradise. I felt like I was trembling from so much pleasure and I didn’t understand what it was. If you’re in a body, it’s impossible to understand this pleasure."
A thousand prosecutors and two defense attorneys
And then the proclamation arrived.
A distant voice suddenly said that Alon’s time had run out and he had to go to another place. "I felt that they were pulling me out of where I was. I begged to stay. I panicked. I knew that I was seeing divine visions, but I saw them from within the bubble of my life, and knew that I wasn’t going to get them. They told me: 'You chose a different route, which is far from this pleasure’, and they tried to tear me away.
“At that instant I felt great suffering. The best way I can describe it is like taking a small child to a candy store and all the way there you get him excited about all the good things he's going to eat, and finally, when he comes to the store, you tell him, ‘OK! We’re going home!’ and he isn’t given a thing. They tore me from the light and threw me into a small, dark enclosure."
How did you feel?
"I saw millions of eyes looking at me. I felt as if I was transparent, and I knew that G-d was opposite me. I was overwhelmed with terrible shame, but I didn’t feel that G-d was angry with me or wanted to punish me. To the contrary, I felt like He was telling me, ‘I sent you into This World with so many tools, why didn’t you use them?' I felt that I failed Him, and I felt terrible. At this point, I knew I was going to be put on trial.
"My first defense attorney was handicapped, because he represented the first commandment that I possessed — the very fact of being circumcised. But I didn’t choose to do it, so the commandment wasn’t really mine, but my parents. My second defense attorney, who represented my putting on tefillin at my bar mitzvah, was blind — because from the age of 13 until the age of 28, I didn’t put on my tefillin even once.
My trial began and the mountain of evidence began to arrive: the prosecutors showed every person I had stolen from, that I had fought with, that I had spoke slander about and lied to. My shame was devastating. Then they began to show every thought I had had, every wrong deed I had done behind the back of someone or in private. They also showed me the spiritual defects I had incurred due to my sins. A person who sins and doesn’t repent them during his life — when he reaches the Afterlife, they send him to Hell to cleanse him from all the defilement that is clinging to his soul. The sins I had done had not only contaminated my soul, but also created a spiritual shell that covered the spiritual light and better part of my soul. When the soul of a person is covered with shells, he can not sense anything holy. Nothing. He is impervious."
The Trial: 99.999% sins and a tiny percentile of something good
In the Heavenly court, the sickly defense attorneys tried to tally up his good deeds and claim he was innocent. But after weighing him up, he was declared to have 99.999% sins and a tiny percentile of something good. The scales sagged all the way down, showing he was totally evil. He knew that from here, only one way awaited him — to Hell.
"Suddenly, they told me, 'Listen. Let’s make a deal. You choose what you want: either go with the Angel of Death, or return to the world to fulfill three conditions: The first condition — you must be a religious Jew.’ When they told me the words ‘religious Jew’, they showed me my life from hereon in and I saw myself as I am today: a long beard, wearing Orthodox clothes, children ... I was willing to grab the deal, but they told me, 'Wait. Be careful before you answer, because you can not come back after 120 years and say, “I didn’t know.” We are delineating a lifestyle of how you will have to live, and you can not bend the rules and think you’ll find loopholes. The second condition — you have 28 years of deficit. Fifteen years have passed since your bar mitzvah that you have to rectify. If you stole from someone, you have to find that person and return the money. If you cursed someone — you have to go and ask him for forgiveness. And the third condition — you must tell your story to everyone, every chance you get.’
“Once I agreed to accept the whole deal, I was returned to my body and woke up in the cab."
Wow, this sounds utterly delusory. What happened then?
"When I woke up, I knew nothing and didn’t remember anything. I was as if I had been reset completely. My friend who was riding with me in the cab was shouting, and I didn’t understand why or what had happened to me. In a few minutes we reached the hospital and lots of people in white coats pulled me out of the cab. It was only after I was treated and returned to myself, that the doctors told me I had experienced a cardiac arrest. I felt an overwhelming feeling that I had to do a good commandment.
“You think it is easy? Well, it turns out that for a secular guy whose entire life involved doing whatever he felt like, it wasn’t simple at all. I didn’t know what to do and whom to call. I remembered a friend who a few months earlier had become religious. His name was Itzik. I called him in a panic and said, 'Listen, I have to do a Jewish commandment. You have an idea how?'
He thought I was crazy. After all, he knew me not just from today and he knows that I am the last person on earth to be interested in doing commandments. But then he realized that if I wanted to do a commandment, I probably have a good reason for it and he said, 'Listen. Tonight it’s Passover. I'll arrange a place for you to stay and you can come to a seder like a human being.’ I agreed."
Someone always goes with me
It was the first time ever that he had experienced a proper Seder. After that Passover, Itzik accompanied him to purchase a daily prayer book, tefillin and a tallit, and also explained to him basic observance. Shortly after, Anavah packed his bag and moved to Chicago. "I felt I had to get away from New York and from what happened," he recalls. "Besides, I got a rather tempting business proposition, a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I decided to move."
In Chicago, for a full year and a half, Anavah didn’t say a word about what had happened to him. He was afraid they would think he was crazy, or alternatively, ask him why he hadn’t repented immediately after such event.
"All this time in Chicago, I felt like G-d was holding my hand, going with me step by step, stroking me and saying, 'Take your time, I know you're on the way with Me.’ To fully undertake the yoke of Torah and its commandments and to commit myself to everything seemed a very high mountain to climb, so I tried to make things easier for myself — ‘Next Shabbat I will start to observe it’, I would assure myself.
“At that time I was a very heavy smoker, and I remembered that when I was a soldier, I met a Jew who tried to talk to me about Judaism for an hour and a half, and finally said, 'I see you do not want to hear about religion, so at least keep one thing: Do not extinguish cigarettes on the Shabbat. Every time that you do not extinguish a cigarette, it will be considered as if you kept a commandment.’
“Suddenly I remembered that and decided to undertake not to put out cigarettes on Shabbat. I smoked on Shabbat, but when I finished a cigarette, I put the cigarette in the ashtray and let it extinguish by itself. I was sure that through this act I was keeping the Shabbat. I didn’t realize that there were other commandments I was obligated to keep, I was sure I was 100% fine. I knew I wasn’t really religious, but I also knew that G-d was patiently waiting for me."
G-d waited two whole years. However, when He saw that Alon wasn’t keeping his side of the bargain, the tribulations began to arrive. "At one point I went back to New York and for three years I went through a long period of tribulations of all kinds, until one day I met a rabbi who taught Torah. I hit it off with him and I would come to his classes regularly, until one day I gathered my courage and told him my story.
“When he heard what I went through, he looked at me and said, 'G-d made such a miracle for you and you did nothing?' The next morning he drove to my place, took me to an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey and said, 'You do not move from here until I come and get you, you hear?' For three months, I led a completely ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. During this time, I also fulfilled my second condition of the deal, when I went to a great rabbi in New York and received his exact guidance how to rectify all my sins and locate anyone who I had caused injury to and ask their forgiveness."
The young people insulted him
A few months later Anavah met his wife in an arranged date, and the two married. Now, he had to fulfill the third part of the promise: to tell everyone what had happened to him.
"At first I told it to only close friends in yeshiva and my rabbis, and they heard the story with understanding and took it very seriously, without batting an eyelash. But I wasn’t worried about them. I was nervous that at some point I would have to stand before people who are not religious and are even alienated from Judaism — with long hair and earrings — just as I was, and tell them my story.”
He was the most worried about them and rightly so. The first night he was asked to tell his story, he found himself in front of dozens of youths who shouted insults and curses at him. 'Crazy', 'liar', 'Get out of here', was only a fraction of the insults dished out to him. But the One Who has brought everything into being knew exactly why He had sent him there.
"At the end of that scandalous evening, a man approached me trembling with fear and said, 'I believe every word you said here today. Can you help me and tell me what to do?' I knew it was worthwhile to come and tell my whole story just for him."
Since then, much water has passed in the river. Since that awful lecture, who knows how many have drawn close to the Creator because of it? Anavah has told his story to thousands of people around the world. To hear it now, you "only" have to wait four months in line to make a reservation with him.
Why do you think Heaven particularly chose you to go through such an experience?
"It's a question that people have asked me thousands of times and the answer is I don’t know. I feel grateful and don’t ask questions. G-d must have his reasons why He chose me to go through all this. Some say I must have had a merit from my ancestors. Perhaps they are right. My last name gives this away: eight generations back, my grandfather was a rabbi in Austria and he was a very righteous and humble man. Because he was so humble, everyone called him 'Anavah' instead of Alton, and the name simply stuck. It might be that the merit of that grandfather is still hovering over me."
The whole family strengthened spirituality
When asked what qualities he discovered in himself that he didn’t have before his clinical death, Anavah says that not only his personality has changed, but he feels a completely different person. "Before the incident, everything about me was negative: I was rude, impolite and not a nice person. Since I took on the yoke of Torah and its commandments, everything changed. I try to radiate gratitude, tolerance, love of my fellow Jew ... I received a completely different soul."
You undertook to go on the path that you are on now, but you're not resting at all: your daily schedule consists of studying Torah, receiving, advising and helping people, lectures around the world — and you are also a full time father of five children. Do you have times when you feel that life is too overwhelming? That you can no longer keep the promise you made to the heavenly court?
"First, I want to emphasize that I am perfectly normal. A soul in a body, with the same passions and lusts as everyone else. I have an advantage because I gained insights due to what I experienced, and therefore the desire to elevate and strengthen myself accompanies me all the time. So far, my personal satisfaction from my activities atones for the feelings of difficulty that occasionally arise. I don’t suffer the feeling of being dragged down, I suffer when I'm not putting all my time into the Torah and outreach.
“When there is a lull, the evil inclination comes to entice me, but when I hit the pedal down all the way in my observance of Torah and commandments — then that foolish evil inclination doesn’t have time to latch on to me. There are always ups and downs, but when a man has a large spiritual battery, he knows how to turn a decline into something positive. The Torah gives a lot of tools to deal with difficult things. My motto in life is, when a person is busy with output [liflot], he will not have time for imput [liklot]. What I mean is that when you are busy with an output of Torah and good deeds and influencing others for the good, then you won’t pick up anything negative from the environment."
When asked whether his story changed anything within his immediate family, Anavah says yes indeed. When he was growing up, he never heard a word of Torah or anything to do with Judaism. Now, thank G-d, his mother completely became observant. His father also changed and has great respect for what his mother does. In addition, his sister's eldest sons, now aged 14 and 17, put on tefillin, keep kosher and go to Torah classes — something which is not at all self-understood when you grow up in a completely secular environment.
"In conclusion, the strongest message I would like to convey to your readers," Anavah emphasizes with a big smile wreathing his face, "is that whatever you do in This World causes an echo for eternity in the Afterlife.
“Every person has an allotted number of years in This World, which he can use for good or for bad. Since none of us knows when his expiration date will come, the first question we have to ask ourselves is: How can I prepare myself in This World for my Hereafter?
“What should concern all of us is how to invest in and accumulate as many commandments and good things as we can. We have to fill up our savings account with real money that will be useful in the Afterlife.
“Every second and every action in This World carries an infinite weight in the Hereafter — with tremendous meaning and influence that will last for eternity. In this world, everyone says with foolish confidence, 'When I get to heaven, I will work things out then”, but this is a fundamentally wrong approach. A person doesn’t know who he will have to face, nor when his last day will come — which is exactly what happened to me.
“Death was waiting for me around the corner, and only by the grace of heaven, was I given another chance at life. The trick is to internalize and learn from the mistakes of others rather than wait until your time runs out. If it happened to me suddenly, it can happen to everyone. That would be a pity. We should be smart and increase our savings plan. It’s worthwhile, because we’re investing in our eternity."
You can watch Rabbi Zamir Cohen’s lecture on "Life After Life" which includes testimonies and scientific evidence on the subject of clinical death, at Hidabroot’s web site.