One of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is that life does not begin with birth, nor does it end with death. This is articulated in the verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to G‑d, who gave it.”1
The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often point out that a basic law of physics (known as the First Law of Thermodynamics) is that no energy is ever “lost” or destroyed; it only assumes another form. If such is the case with physical energy, how much more so a spiritual entity such as the soul, whose existence is not limited by time, space, or any of the other delineators of the physical state. Certainly, the spiritual energy that in the human being is the source of sight and hearing, emotion and intellect, will and consciousness does not cease to exist merely because the physical body has ceased to function; rather, it passes from one form of existence (physical life as expressed and acted via the body) to a higher, exclusively spiritual form of existence.
While there are numerous stations in a soul’s journey, these can generally be grouped into four general phases:
- the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;
- physical life;
- post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);
- the “world to come” (olam haba) that follows the resurrection of the dead.
What are these four phases, and why are all four necessary?
To See or Not to See: The Free Choice Paradox
As discussed at length in chassidic teaching,2 the ultimate purpose of the soul is fulfilled during the time it spends in this physical world making this world “a dwelling-place for G‑d” by finding and expressing G‑dliness in everyday life through its fulfillment of the mitzvot.
But for our actions in this world to have true significance, they must be the product of our free choice. If we were to experience the power and beauty of the divine presence we bring into the world with our mitzvot, we would always choose what is right, and thereby lose our autonomy. The obvious becomes robotic. Our accomplishments would not be ours, any more than it is an “accomplishment” that we eat three meals a day and avoid jumping into fire.
Hence, this crucial stage of our lives is enacted under the conditions of almost total spiritual blackout: in a world in which the divine reality is hidden, in which our purpose in life is not obvious; a world in which “all its affairs are severe and evil, and wicked men prevail.”3 In such a world, our positive and godly actions are truly our own choice and achievement.
On the other hand, however, how would it be possible at all to discover, and act upon, goodness and truth under such conditions? If the soul is plunged into such a godless world, and cut off from all knowledge of the divine, by what means could it ever discover the path of truth?
This is why the soul exists in a purely spiritual state before it descends in to this world. In its pre-physical existence, the soul is fortified with the divine wisdom, knowledge and vision that will empower it in its struggles to transcend and transform the physical reality.
In the words of the Talmud: “The fetus in its mother’s womb is taught the entire Torah . . . When its time comes to emerge into the atmosphere of the world, an angel comes and slaps it on its mouth, making it forget everything.”4
An obvious question: If we’re made to forget it all, why teach it to us in the first place? But herein lies the entire paradox of knowledge and choice: we can’t see the truth, we can’t even manifestly know it, but at the same time we do know it, deep inside us. Deep enough that we can choose to ignore it, but also deep enough that wherever we are and whatever we become, we can always choose to unearth it. This, in the final analysis, is choice: our choice to pursue the knowledge implanted in our soul, or to suppress it.
The Mutual Exclusivity of Achievement and Reward
Thus the stage is set for phase 2: the tests, trials and tribulations of physical life. The characteristics of the physical—its finiteness, its opaqueness, its self-centeredness, its tendency to conceal what lies behind it—form a heavy veil that obscures virtually all knowledge and memory of our divine source. And yet, deep down we know right from wrong. Somehow we know that life is meaningful, that we are here to fulfill a divine purpose; somehow, when confronted with a choice between a G‑dly action and an unG‑dly one, we know the difference. The knowledge is faint—a dim, subconscious memory from a prior, spiritual state. We can silence it, or amplify it—the choice is ours.
Everything physical is, by definition, finite; indeed, that is what makes it a concealment of the infinitude of the divine. Intrinsic to physical life is that it is finite in time: it ends. Once it ends—once our soul is freed from its physical embodiment—we can no longer achieve and accomplish. But now, finally, we can behold and derive satisfaction from what we have accomplished.
The two are mutually exclusive: achievement precludes satisfaction; satisfaction precludes achievement. Achievement can take place only in the spiritual blindness of the physical world; satisfaction can take place only in the choice-less environment of the spiritual reality.
The Talmud quotes the verse: “You shall keep the mitzvah, the decrees and the laws which I command you today to do them.”5 “Today to do them,” explains the Talmud, “but not to do them tomorrow. Today to do them, and tomorrow to receive their reward.”6 The Ethics expresses it thus: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the world to come. And a single moment of bliss in the world to come is greater than all of this world.”7
It’s as if we spent a hundred years watching an orchestra performing a symphony on television—with the sound turned off. We watched the hand movements of the conductor and the musicians. Sometimes we asked: why are the people on the screen making all these strange motions to no purpose? Sometimes we understood that a great piece of music was being played, but didn’t hear a single note. After a hundred years of watching in silence, we watch it again—this time with the sound turned on.
The orchestra is ourselves, and the music—played well or poorly—is the deeds of our lives.
What is Heaven and Hell?
Heaven and hell are where the soul receives its reward and punishment after death. Yes, Judaism believes in, and Jewish traditional sources extensively discuss, punishment and reward in the afterlife (indeed, it is one of the “Thirteen Principles” of Judaism enumerated by Maimonides). But these are a very different “heaven” and “hell” than what one finds described in medieval Christian texts or New Yorker cartoons. Heaven is not a place of halos and harps, nor is hell populated by those red creatures with pitchforks depicted on the label of non-kosher canned meat.
After death, the soul returns to its divine Source, together with all the G‑dliness it has “extracted” from the physical world by using it for meaningful purposes. The soul now relives its experiences on another plane, and experiences the good it accomplished during its physical lifetime as incredible happiness and pleasure, and the negative as incredibly painful.
This pleasure and pain are not reward and punishment in the conventional sense—in the sense that we might punish a criminal by sending him to jail, or reward a dedicated employee with a raise. It is rather that we experience our own life in its reality—a reality from which we were sheltered during our physical lifetimes. We experience the true import and effect of our actions. Turning up the volume on that TV set with that symphony orchestra can be intensely pleasurable, or intensely painful8—depending on how we played the music of our lives.
When the soul departs from the body, it stands before the heavenly court to give a “judgment and accounting” of its earthly life.9 But the heavenly court does only the “accounting” part; the “judgment” part—that, only the soul itself can do.10 Only the soul can pass judgment on itself; only it can know and sense the true extent of what it accomplished, or neglected to accomplish, in the course of its physical life. Freed from the limitations and concealments of the physical state, it can now see G‑dliness; it can now look back at its own life and experience what it truly was. The soul’s experience of the G‑dliness it brought into the world with its mitzvot and positive actions is the exquisite pleasure of Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden”—Paradise); its experience of the destructiveness it wrought through its lapses and transgressions is the excruciating pain of Gehinnom (“Gehenna” or “Purgatory”).
The truth hurts. The truth also cleanses and heals. The spiritual pain of Gehinnom—the soul’s pain in facing the truth of its life—cleanses and heals the soul of the spiritual stains and blemishes that its failings and misdeeds have attached to it. Freed of this husk of negativity, the soul is now able to fully enjoy the immeasurable good that its life engendered, and “bask in the divine radiance” emitted by the G‑dliness it brought into the world.
For a G‑dly soul spawns far more good in its lifetime than evil. The core of the soul is unadulterated goodness; the good we accomplish is infinite, the evil but shallow and superficial. So even the most wicked of souls, say our sages, experiences at most twelve months of Gehinnom, followed by an eternity of heaven. Furthermore, a soul’s experience of Gehinnom can be mitigated by the action of his or her children and loved ones, here on earth. Reciting kaddish and engaging in other good deeds “in merit of” and “for the elevation of” the departed soul means that the soul, in effect, is continuing to act positively upon the physical world, thereby adding to the goodness of its physical lifetime.11
The soul, for its part, remains involved in the lives of those it leaves behind when it departs physical life. The soul of a parent continues to watch over the lives of his or her children and grandchildren, to derive pride (or pain) from their deeds and accomplishments, and to intercede on their behalf before the heavenly throne; the same applies to those to whom a soul was connected with bonds of love, friendship and community. In fact, because the soul is no longer constricted by the limitations of the physical state, its relationship with its loved ones is, in many ways, even deeper and more meaningful than before.
However, while the departed soul is aware and cognizant of all that transpires in the lives of its loved ones, the souls remaining in the physical world are limited to what they can perceive via the five senses as facilitated by their physical bodies. We can impact the soul of a departed loved one through our positive actions, but we cannot communicate with it through the conventional means (speech, sight, physical contact, etc.) that, prior to its passing, defined the way that we related to each other. (Indeed, the Torah expressly forbids the idolatrous practices of necromancy, mediumism and similar attempts to “make contact” with the world of the dead.) Hence, the occurrence of death, while signifying an elevation for the soul of the departed, is experienced as a tragic loss for those it leaves behind.
Reincarnation: A Second Go
Each individual soul is dispatched to the physical world with its own individualized mission to accomplish. As Jews, we all have the same Torah with the same 613 mitzvot; but each of us has his or her own set of challenges, distinct talents and capabilities, and particular mitzvot which form the crux of his or her mission in life.
At times, a soul may not conclude its mission in a single lifetime. In such cases, it returns to earth for a “second go” to complete the job. This is the concept of gilgul neshamot—commonly referred to as “reincarnation”—extensively discussed in the teachings of Kabbalah.12 This is why we often find ourselves powerfully drawn to a particular mitzvah or cause and make it the focus of our lives, dedicating to it a seemingly disproportionate part of our time and energy: it is our soul gravitating to the “missing pieces” of its divinely ordained purpose.13
The World to Come
Just as the individual soul passes through three stages—preparation for its mission, the mission itself, and the subsequent phase of satisfaction and reward—so, too, does creation as a whole. A chain of spiritual “worlds” precedes the physical reality, to serve it as a source of divine vitality and empowerment. Then comes the era of olam hazeh (“this world”), in which the divine purpose of creation is played out. Finally, once humanity as a whole has completed its mission of making the physical world a “dwelling-place for G‑d,” comes the era of universal reward—the “world to come” (olam haba).
There is a major difference between a soul’s individual “world of reward” in Gan Eden, and the universal reward of the world to come. Gan Eden is a spiritual world, inhabited by souls without physical bodies; the world to come is a physical world, inhabited by souls with physical bodies14 (though the very nature of the physical will undergo a fundamental transformation).
In the world to come, the physical reality will so perfectly “house” and reflect the divine reality that it will transcend the finitude and temporality which define it today. Thus, while in today’s imperfect world the soul can experience “reward” only after it departs from the body and physical life, in the world to come the soul and body will be reunited and will together enjoy the fruits of their labor. Thus, the prophets of Israel spoke of a time when all who died will be restored to life: their bodies will be regenerated15 and their souls restored to their bodies. “Death will be eradicated forever,”16 and “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the water covers the seabed.”17
This, of course, will spell the end of the “Era of Achievement.”18 The veil of physicality, rarefied to complete transparency, will no longer conceal the truth of G‑d, but will rather express it and reveal it in an even more profound way than the most lofty spiritual reality. Goodness and G‑dliness will cease to be something we do and achieve, for it will be what we are. Our experience of goodness will be absolute. Body and soul both, reunited as they were before they were separated by death, will inhabit all the good that we accomplished with our freely chosen actions in the challenges and concealments of physical life.