Mourning and the Nature of Life
Inasmuch as I am in mourning for my mother, of blessed memory, who passed away a little more than three weeks ago, my mind is somewhat preoccupied with the concept of the soul, life, death and the world to come. The Jewish view of the human being includes both the physical and the spiritual. The essence of the human is the spiritual, the body is like the clothing that surrounds and conceals the essence. This spiritual essence, the soul, is described as “A portion of God from above” and is not limited in its existence to this temporary, physical world. When we view a human being’s life in this world we only see a small segment of the total existence of his essence, the soul, or the neshamah. The word for soul, neshamah is related to the Hebrew world for “breath,” neshimah, alluding to the verse in Genesis which states that God “blew into his nostrils the soul of life.” This teaches us that it is the eternal and infinite “breath of God” that invests life in the person, and because of this the soul shares many characteristics of the Creator. The Sages compare the soul in many ways to God Himself, Who is unseen and unlimited by time and space, as is the soul.
The soul by itself however, is not a human. The unique combination of the lofty, spiritual soul and the material body is the human being. The soul must descend to the physical world, and dwell in a body, because only here is there free will and therefore only here is there a possibility of achieving moral and spiritual greatness. Greatness can only be achieved through struggle, and through choice; if it is granted as a gift, it is not truly the greatness of the individual, but the greatness of the one from whom it came. It is in this world, the world of doing, that the human makes progress, and he eats the fruit of his actions in the world to come, the world of being.
The body is the interface between the spiritual soul and the physical world. The soul without the body cannot interact with the world and hence cannot fulfill its task. The body without the soul is merely matter, with no free will or spirituality. We therefore value life in this world as the only place where we can perfect ourselves, but we understand also that the world that we experience with our senses is not the totality of our existence or of reality in general. Even when the body is lifeless and returns to the soil, the soul, which contains the true identity of the person, continues to exist.
The great Biblical commentator Nachmanides writes that the concept of eternity of the soul should moderate our reaction to death. Commenting on the Biblical prohibition against mutilation as a sign of mourning, Nachmanides states:
The Torah is saying that since you are a holy people and God’s treasure, He did not create you and plan you and your soul in vain, and He will not let it be lost; therefore it is not appropriate to cut yourselves or pull out your hair even for someone who died in his youth.
The Torah does not prohibit mourning; on the contrary, mourning in an appropriate fashion is a mitzvah. The Torah, however, does prohibit permanent signs of mourning, because that would be a declaration that the soul is permanently gone and that the loss is absolute. If we believe that the soul continues to exist after it has departed this world then it is certainly inappropriate to mourn excessively and to be in a state of lifelong grief. We cry for our loss, and we cry for the soul that is no longer able to accomplish things in this world, but we are comforted knowing that the soul lives on. My revered teacher, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, when referring to a deceased scholar, always uses the expression, “Who no longer lives with us.” The message is clear, he longer lives with us, but he certainly still lives.
The Sages also point out that there is more reason for fear and trepidation at the beginning of life than at the end of life. At life’s beginning everything is uncertain, the potential for failure is there and we do not know if the soul will succeed. At life’s end, we know that the soul has gone back to its Creator, and, at least for a good person, the soul has achieved a tremendous amount of good and has returned to the place of its desire. The Sages compare life to a ship that is going out to sea. When it leaves port for the first time people throw streamers, a band plays and a bottle of champagne is broken on the ship’s bow. When the ship comes back to port, there is no band and no streamers, only passport control and the customs officers are waiting. In fact, we should pray when the ship embarks because we do not know what will happen to it on its journey, and we should celebrate when it returns in peace. Human emotion being as it is, does not see life and death like the ship’s journey; we celebrate a new life and new potential, and we cry for our loss of a loved one. For someone who led a life that was righteous, however, our mourning should be tempered by the knowledge that the ship has returned intact to its home port.
Death is a transition from one type of existence to another. In the Mishnah and Talmud the word that is used for “womb” is the same as the word for “grave.” This choice of terminology teaches us that just as the womb is a portal from a limited level of existence to another existence of much greater potential, so also the grave is a portal from our limited physical existence to a spiritual existence that is not limited by time, space and matter. This idea is also alluded to in the verse in Deuteronomy which places “death” before “life.”
See now that I, I am He — and no god is with Me. I put to death and I bring life, I strike down and I will heal…
The state of being of the soul that is purely spiritual is known in Hebrew as Olam Haba literally, “the world that comes” or as it is more commonly known, “the world to come.” The state of the soul’s existence, its degree of closeness and connection to God is directly determined by its activities in this world, therefore the world in which the soul exists independent of the body is known as the “the world that comes” — from this world. We use physical terms to describe Olam Haba, saying that the soul is “there” but really meaning that the soul exists in a purely spiritual state, in which the terms “here, there and when” are inapplicable.
The idea of Olam Haba is alluded to in the various expressions that the Torah uses for death – “he lay down with his fathers” or “he was gathered to his people” both of which indicate the continued existence of the soul beyond this world.
And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of the Machpelah…
And Isaac expired and died, and he was gathered to his people, old and fulfilled of days; his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
In addition there is a punishment described in the Torah called “karet” which means “cutting off” and refers to the cutting off of the soul from its eternal existence. The verse states “that soul will be cut off from his people… that soul will be utterly cut off; his sin will remain upon him.” A soul that has ceased to exist cannot have its sin “remain upon him;” only if the soul continues to exist, can its sin exist with it. The verse in Ecclesiastes describes succinctly the different fates of the body and the soul.
Thus the dust returns to the ground, as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who gave it.