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What Happens After We Die?

What Happens After We Die?

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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:

  1. the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;
  2. physical life;
  3. post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);
  4. 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 G‑dly 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 G‑dless 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.

FOOTNOTES
1. Ecclesiastes 12:7.
2. See Body: The Physical World According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and our articles on The Purpose of Creation and A Dwelling for G‑d in the Physical World.
3. Tanya, chapter 6.
4. Talmud, Niddah 30b.
5. Deuteronomy 7:11.
6. Talmud, Eruvin 22a.
7. Ethics of the Fathers 4:17.
8. Thus the sages speak about a “Gehenna of fire,” in which we experience the full destructive “heat” of our illicit desires, anger and hatreds; and a “Gehenna of snow,” in which we are exposed to the “coldness” of our moments of indifference to G‑d and to our fellows.
9. Ethics of the Fathers 3:1, et al.
10. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.
11. This is why there is a greater emphasis on the recitation of kaddish and other actions for the elevation of a departed soul during the first year after death.
12. Indeed, the Kabbalists say that these days—after nearly six thousand years of human history—a “new” soul is a rarity; the overwhelming majority of us are reincarnated souls, returned to earth to fill the gaps of a previous lifetime.
13. For more on the subject, see our articles on reincarnation.
14. This is actually a matter of contention between two great Jewish thinkers and Torah authorities, Maimonides and Nachmanides; the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism follow the approach of Nachmanides, who sees the ultimate reward as occurring in a world of embodied souls. For more on this, see The Resurrection of the Dead.
15. Interestingly, long before the discovery of genetics and DNA, the Talmud talks about a tiny, indestructible bone in the body called luz, from which the entire body will be “rebuilt” after it returned to dust.
16. Isaiah 25:8.
17. Ibid. 11:9.
18. The Talmud goes so far as to quote the verse (Ecclesiastes 12:1), “There will come years of which you will say: I have no desire in them,” and declare: “This refers to the days of the messianic era, in which there is neither merit nor obligation” (Talmud, Shabbat 151b).
Yanki Tauber is content editor of Chabad.org.
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, a frequent contributor of articles and media to Chabad.org, is Dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York, N.Y., and director of the Institute for Judaic Knowledge, based in Newton, Mass. Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars throughout North America, as well as in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.
About the artist: Sarah Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London.
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Discussion (150)
September 26, 2014
Shalom Marc and Eliezer
First to you Marc. You commented on September 9th asking if marriage will continue as is currently after death. Coincidentally September 9th is our 35th anniversary. To Eliezer. Oy vay iz mir to imagine that I will not get a shot at a better marriage after death. Now you tell me. Oh well.
Anonymous
NYC
September 9, 2014
afterlife
When moshiach comes those whom died and come back will those couples be married again or considered single sense we say until death due us part?
marc
September 8, 2014
To Marc
Yes, when Moshiach comes humans will still live a physical life, so birth and marriage will still exist.

Certain people, who were so evil in this life, will not be resurrected.
Eliezer Zalmanov
for Chabad.org
September 5, 2014
Hell and back
LOL No I never wrote a book about it, and yes I recite the prayers at Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv etc. However, as a poster advertising the world cup once said, depicting the jubilation of the winners and the anguish of the losers:
"Heaven and Hell are the same place"
It's all a question of personal experience, as anyone who has worked in psychiatrics will tell you. It isn't simply a question of the 'evil inclination' -a very vague and general term that doesn't necessarily explain how another human being suffers. I know many good people, who nevertheless suffer a great deal, on account of their compassion and empathy. Rabbi Nachman speaks much of this in his Likutey Moharan. The Tzaddik is a good example. In my case, I asked for the experience and it was granted, nothing more. I'm not contesting the article, but at the end of the day, one would be foolish to ignore one's own experiences, rather than relying solely on the written experience of another. ...ראשית חכמה יראת יה I believe?
Giordano
September 5, 2014
afterlife
Three questions first let's say a person didn't have children but wanted them when everyone is brought back to life will people still be able to pair children with those who didn't have kids before? Second question will marriage still be around once there is a perfect world? Third and final question what happens to the soul of an evil person like say Hitler? I think we'd all agree such an evil person probably would never be willing to face what he did.
marc
September 3, 2014
To Anonymous
oh, so the guy who went to Hell came back and wrote a book about it?
As the article states, we do alot more good than evil during our lifetime.
In the morning Blessings we beseech G-d "May it be Your Will....to protect me this day from the retribution of gehinom". Note it says this day and we say this each day - so, there is that aspect of gehinom or Hell, so to speak, that a person can experience while still in this world if they are at the mercy of their evil inclination rather than master over it.
Leah
September 3, 2014
Hell
I once asked G-d to show me what hell is, and he did…it scarred me for life. It was, as the last commentator said, a complete absence of G-d, no prayer or anything could reach outside of one's awareness of oneself. There is no fire etc, just the agony of being alone, completely stripped of all companionship. It reminds me of William Golding's 'Pincher Martin', where the protagonist is described as undergoing exactly this process in the post-mortem state.
To make the agony worse, when my wife woke up, she told me she had dreamt she had gone to heaven and we had been together in the most amazing bliss. So, even if you are in hell, those who love you will experience otherwise if they merit.
It is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy(if I had an enemy, that is).
It completely changed me. G-d forbid that this should happen to any soul…it is too horrific to contemplate. I pray that no one ever merits such punishment.
Giordano
September 2, 2014
Heaven and Hell
I have read many books of people who have died and gone to heaven and hell and neither have been described by any as anything of what I just read. One man that wrote of his experience of hell wrote his experience this way. Hell is GOD removing his presence. For that is what people want is it not when they say they do not want GOD. Are they not saying that they do not want his presence?
But is that a real fact?
So Hell would like as such: God is light Hell is darkness, God made water, there is no water in Hell, God gives Peace there is no peace in Hell, GOD is Love there is no love in Hell. GOD give us Pleasure Hell will be Torment. Take everything you love and enjoy around you that GOD made and subtract it and you will get a glimpse of Hell. and there is a Hell. Heaven or Hell it is every man choice you can accept GOD or reject him it is your choice. Your choice will determine your destination of Heaven or Hell.If you want to get into GOD'S heaven you have to do it his way. No Other.
Anonymous
August 29, 2014
gehinnom
I think it would be interesting to know if one has suffered greatly in this life on account of genuine repentance, sometimes in excess of what one thinks is one's fault, is this
counterbalanced in the afterlife. With the revelation of evil within comes a realisation, that at that level, you didn't know what you were doing, you did not really see, because when you truly 'see' you don't sin. I believe Rabbi Nachman said something about this, that if one judges oneself, then the decrees against oneself are mitigated.
Giordano
August 28, 2014
Re
- Disabilities will be healed in the era of the redemption.

- When a soul enters the world again, it is not the entire soul that returns to the new body, but rather, just the portion of the soul that still needs it tikkun (perfection.) Think of souls as "clusters" with part of them breaking off but then becoming a full soul on its own when coming down to this world.

In the resurrection each specific soul will have its body.

You can read more about this in "To Live and Live again" based on the teachings of the Rebbe:

sichosinenglish.org/books/to-live-and-live-again/10.htm

Yisroel Cotlar
Cary
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