May Ye explores the idea of 'olam haba,' the world to come, and what it will mean to finally get there.
By May Ye
I have often referred to myself as the child of survivors. My mother grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. My father grew up the son of Holocaust survivors. My family’s experience teaches me that we have survived. The stories of survival in my family propel me to build a world in which we can do so much more than survive. This world I am building towards is olam haba, the world to come, the counterpart to olam hazeh, this world that we currently inhabit.
Jews often talk about olam haba as some sort of messianic age, a realm that is fundamentally different from ours. Playing on the beauty and dreams that are described when talking about a messianic age, I choose to reinterpret olam haba as a world rooted in justice. For me, olam haba is the world in which justice and liberation is experienced by all.
Perhaps surprisingly for a spiritual leader, I believe less in prayer. I don’t believe in a being or power that will effect change that I can pray to. I believe in care work. I believe in healing. I believe in the transformative power of listening. I believe in building relationships and knowing your neighbors and community. I believe in action, and I believe that prayer can support that action in getting us towards a liberated world where all of us are free. Prayer asks us to listen to ourselves, and to our surroundings, in order to become attuned to what we need to ask for help with.
I believe that change will come from the actions of those of us who inhabit this earthly realm. Change will come from the weaving together of our actions. It is our actions in the here and now that build the world we hope to live in, the olam haba that sometimes feels like a far away dream. Through steady action and change, G-d willing, we may live in it in our lifetimes.
When I think about why I am an activist and a rabbi-to-be, my motivation is justice, my motivation is liberation, my motivation is olam haba, the world to come. When we make it to olam haba, I don’t imagine that our histories and traumas will be erased. I don’t believe that liberation comes from ignoring or erasing the past. At the same time, I know that there are systems in place that must be completely dismantled and people in power that must be removed for olam haba to stand. “Burn it all down” is a phrase I’m familiar with, an image that often feels alive for me. I pray that olam haba will be built open the ashes, that all that remains in the ashes is the transformation that has occurred. May the ashes provide nutrients for olam haba to stand upon.
I spend a lot of time in olam hazeh, this world, building towards olam haba, the world to come. Recently I completed an independent study with a close friend and comrade on the recent evolution of leftist and values aligned synagogues. We interviewed a number of rabbis and spiritual leaders from across the country, whose work we trust, respect, and have been following and learning from for years, who have helped me to gain clarity on my vision of a world to come. The conversations were both inspiring and familiar; familiar because in some ways they reflect what I do on a daily basis – the work of repairing, of burning down, of reimagining, of creating. The conversations were inspiring because for the first time I snapped out of olam hazeh and I stepped into olam haba, not focusing on the work that must be done to get us there, but dreaming as though I was already there. I found myself asking a new set of questions: When we’ve made it, when we live in the world in which we win, then what? What will we dream of, what will we pray for, what will we act for?
I believe that olam haba is attainable. It is a world that can and will exist for us and the generations of our generations. We must believe this to be true. As we believe in this future and we move towards it, I invite us to keep these questions in mind. I am releasing this piece into the world in a time where our rights are being stripped away left and right. For some, things may feel more dire than ever before. In moments of despair, I hope that you can close your eyes and transport yourself to olam haba, a world of justice, a world of liberation, a world of joy, and push yourself to imagine “what’s next?” We have to believe in our bodies and in our souls that more is possible, that more is possible even after we win.
May Ye is a Chinese-American Jew. She is entering her sixth and final year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, PA. She recently moved to New Haven, CT, where she will be completing her studies remotely as she works with Mending Minyan and as a chaplain intern at Yale New Haven Health. As a rabbinical student, May has worked as a rabbinic intern at Tzedek Chicago, for Aurora Levins Morales on new liturgy that centers the voices of indigenous Jews and Jews of Color, and as a climate justice fellow with POWER, an interfaith social justice organization in Philadelphia. She is the founder of the Person of Color Havurah at Kol Tzedek Synagogue and of Min Hameitzar: A National Network of Jews of Color Havurot. May organized with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Philadelphia chapter, as a member of the steering committee and chair of the ritual committee and she is honored to sit on JVP’s national rabbinical council. She also volunteers as a movement chaplain. In May 2022 she received the Tikkun Olam award from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College “for her inspiring & passionate Palestine Liberation rabbinate and for connecting our politics to the way that we pray.”