The Soul, Mourning and the Afterlife

In this week’s parsha, Abraham mourns the passing of his wife, Sarah, and we, in the Jeiwsh world also are mourning the tragic deaths of eleven innocent Jews, gunned down by a rabid anti-Semite in Pittsburgh.  I felt that it would be appropriate, for both ancient and current mourning to discuss some ideas about the soul, death, and the afterlife.  The Jewish view of the human being encompasses both physical and spiritual entities.  The spiritual aspect is the essence of a person, while the body is like clothing that surrounds and conceals that essence.  This spiritual core, the soul, is called neshamah in Hebrew. The word neshamah is related to neshimah, breath, alluding to the verse in Genesis in which God gave life to the first human being, Adam: “[and God] blew into his nostrils the soul of life.” This teaches us that the eternal and infinite “breath of God” is that which invests a person with life, and therefore the soul shares many characteristics with the Creator. Just as God Himself, is unseen and unlimited by time and space, so too, the human soul is  “A portion of God from Above,” not limited in its existence to this temporary, physical world. When we view a human being’s life in this world we can see only a small segment of the total existence of his essence, his eternal neshamah.

The soul by itself however, is not a person. It is the unique combination of the soul and the material body that constitutes the human being.  In order to achieve moral and spiritual growth, the soul cannot remain in the realm of the purely spiritual, it must descend to the physical world and reside in a material body.  Only here is there free will — and therefore only here is there a possibility of achieving moral and spiritual development. Growth can only be achieved through struggle: that struggle is founded on choice.  When something is granted as a gift, it does not reflect the recipient’s stature; rather it demonstrates the greatness of the one who bestowed this gift.  Therefore it is only in this world, in the world of deeds where free choice exists, that a human can improve himself or herself. The fruit of these efforts is enjoyed in the “World to Come,” i.e. the spiritual world to which the soul returns after the death of the body.

The human body is the interface between spiritual soul and physical world. The soul without the body cannot interact with the world and so cannot fulfill its task. The body without the soul is simply matter, lacking free will and spirituality. Therefore, we value life in this world, recognizing it as the only place where we can perfect ourselves. At the same time, we understand also that the world experienced with our senses does not constitute the totality of our existence or of spiritual reality.  Even when the body becomes lifeless and returns to the soil, the soul, which contains the person’s true identity, continues to exist.

The great Biblical commentator, Nachmanides, writes that understanding the concept of the soul’s eternity should moderate our reaction to death.  Commenting on the Biblical prohibition against mutilation (once a common act of grief), 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.  What the Torah does prohibit is creating permanent signs of mourning on one’s body, because doing this is essentially a statement that the soul is gone forever and the loss is permanent.  Since the soul continues to exist after it has departed this world, it is certainly inappropriate to mourn excessively or maintain a lifelong state of grief.  We mourn our loss, and cry for the soul that can accomplish nothing further in this world, but we are comforted knowing that the soul lives on.  My revered teacher, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, OBM, always referred to a deceased scholar with the phrase “Who no longer lives with us.”  The message is clear; he longer lives with us, but he certainly still lives.

There is another reason why our reaction to death should not be excessive. In reality, the beginning of life should be a time of fear and trepidation, much more so than the end. At life’s beginning, everything is uncertain, we do not know if the soul will succeed in realizing its potential or fall short. At the end of a good life we know that the soul has gone back to its Creator — that it has achieved a tremendous amount while on this earth — but has now returned to the place it truly desires to be.

The Sages compare life to a ship that is going out to sea.  When the ship 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 returns to port, there is no band and no streamers; only passport control and customs officers await it.  In fact, it would be more appropriate to pray when a ship embarks because we do not know what will happen to it on its journey.  The time to celebrate is when it returns in peace.  Human emotion being what it is, we do not see life and death as a journey.  We celebrate a new life and new potential and cry for our loss when a loved one dies.  When, however, we consider all the good that the person achieved in his or her lifetime, our mourning is tempered by the knowledge that the ship has returned safely to its homeport.

Death is a transition from one type of existence to another.  In the Mishnah and Talmud the same word (kever) is used to mean both “womb” and “grave.”  This teaches us that just as the womb is the portal from a limited level of existence to another plane of much greater potential, so too, the grave is a portal from our limited physical existence to a spiritual existence that is not bounded by time, space and matter.  This idea that death precedes another type of life is clearly alluded to in the verse in Deuteronomy: “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…” Note that in the above passage God first brings about death, followed by new life.

The purely spiritual state of being of the soul is known in Hebrew as Olam Haba, literally, “the world that comes” or, as it is more commonly known, “the World to Come.”  We use physical terms to describe Olam Haba, saying, for example, that the soul is “there” because we relate to these concepts most easily. In reality, the soul exists in a purely spiritual state, to which the terms “here, there and when” are inapplicable. “The world that comes” is a very precise description of this realm.  The condition of the soul’s existence in Olam Haba, its degree of closeness and connection to God, is directly determined by its previous activities in the physical world; it is the “the world that comes” —  the state that results directly from what happens in this world.

The idea of Olam Haba is suggested by the various expressions the Torah uses for death.

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.

“He lay down with his fathers” and “he was gathered to his people,” both indicate the continued existence of the soul beyond this world. It also implies that the soul is somehow reunited with ancestors.  Another allusion to Olam Haba is the punishment described in the Torah as karet which means “cutting off.” This 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.” The phrase “his sin will remain upon him” seems to indicates the continued existence of the soul.

A verse in Ecclesiastes succinctly describes 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.

The concept of life after death is mentioned in other books of the Bible as well, and it is written about extensively in Rabbinic literature.

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