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Introduction: The Journey of Life

Introduction: The Journey of Life

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An Actual Part of G‑d

According to Jewish tradition, the soul is a portion of G‑d infused in a physical body. The G‑dly soul animates and enlivens the body. It allows it to see, hear, and interact with the world around it. In Hebrew, the soul is called Neshama, which literally means "breath."

Describing the creation of Adam, the first human, the Torah relates, "And G‑d formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).

Jewish mysticism teaches us that when one blows out air, the breath comes directly from one's essence. It is internal, unchanged and unformed by vocalization.

By stating that G‑d "breathed into Adam's nostrils the soul of life," the Torah is telling us that G‑d imparted His "essence" into man, unlike all other creations, which were brought into being "externally" through His speech (G‑d "Said" let there be...).

Coming from the essence of G‑d, the soul is perfect and untainted. It is charged with the task of making a "dwelling place for G‑d" in this world, through the fulfillment of Mitzvot (Heb. G‑d's commandments), and worthy acts.

During a person's lifetime on earth, he is given the merit and free-choice to partner with his G‑dly soul. He can affect it, and the world, by either allowing the soul to shine forth through proper thoughts, words and deeds, or, G‑d forbid, by burying it beneath layers and coverings, suppressing and tarnishing its G‑dly radiance. Thus G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, has given His people the gift of repentance, allowing one to "wipe the slate clean," and begin anew.

The Union of Body and Soul

The soul, being a part of G‑d, shares all the attributes applied to G‑d: It is Infinite, All-Powerful, Holy, and Enduring, to name a few of G‑d's attributes. The body, by comparison, is comprised of physical matter. It is temporary. It is here today, yet begins disintegrating as soon as the soul leaves the body.

We can thus readily understand Judaism's concern with the soul over the body. The soul endures, while the body returns to dust.

This in no way diminishes the importance of the body or of the material world. Only by descending into the physical body and living in this world can the soul accomplish its task. The body enables the soul to impart G‑dliness to the world, as well as to acquire additional holiness for itself.

This is accomplished specifically by interfacing and intera- cting with the physical and material, by doing mitzvot and other worthy acts, and by studying His Torah.

At the same time, the soul enables the body to transcend its animal nature by refining it and revealing its innate G‑dliness and goodness. It creates within the body a yearning to escape the limits of material existence and to connect to the eternal.

The Heavenly Court

After passing from this world, the soul is brought before the Heavenly Court to account for its days and actions (or in- actions) during its mortal lifetime.

Jewish tradition speaks of a "Celestial Scale" on which one's positive deeds and negative deeds are weighed against each other. The soul receives its reward or punishment accordingly.

Garden of Eden - Life After Life

In Judaism there is no "After-Life" — because life never ends. As it states in Ecclesiastes (12:7): "And the dust (body) returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to G‑d who gave it."

The Torah teaches that there are two worlds or states: Olam Hazeh (this World), and Olam Habah (the World to Come). In Olam Hazeh, G‑dliness is hidden (enabling a person to have free-choice). In Olam Habah, G‑dliness is completely revealed. In between those two worlds is "Gan Eden" (heaven; paradise). There the soul reposes until it is ushered into the World to Come, and re-experiences as its reward the G‑dliness that it brought into the world. The amount of G‑dly radiance the soul is capable of absorbing and enjoying in Gan Eden, and in the World to Come, is directly proportionate to the Torah, mitzvot, and worthy acts performed by the person in this world.

If the soul returns "tarnished," it must go through a state of "Gehinom" (purging; purgatory), in which it is made to understand the spiritual failings and vacuum caused by its lapses and transgressions, before it can enter Gan Eden. We are taught that being that the G‑dly soul is pure and good at its essence, the experience of Gehinom never exceeds more than twelve months.

Sweetening the Soul's Judgment

Since all Jews come from one source, all Jews are essentially one G‑dly entity. Therefore, we are capable of benefiting, and are responsible for, one another.

Thus, even if the soul did not accomplish as much as it could or should have, and must experience Gehinom, family members (especially one's children), friends, and even strangers can sweeten its judgments. This is done by reciting Kaddish, performing mitzvot, giving charity, and studying Torah in merit of the soul (see pages 161 and 277).

"The World to Come" and "The Resurrection of the Dead"

One of the cornerstones of Jewish belief is Techiat Hameitim , the resurrection of the dead, when each body will be regenerated and its soul restored. According to tradition, this era will be ushered in by Moshiach, the Messiah.

Judaism believes that the world is constantly marching to this state, and once it is attained, G‑dliness will be openly revealed. All negativity, illness, wars, death, and so on, will disappear, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, as the waters cover the sea. At that time, every Jewish person who ever lived, as well as all righteous gentiles, will be brought back to life to bask in the eternal light of G‑d.

The time of Moshiach is neither far off, nor an impossibility in our lifetime. Moshiach can come in an instant. Each positive deed that is performed in this world can be the one that tips the scales of good over evil and ushers in the era of Moshiach.

Your Soul as Your Guide

The soul serves as a "spiritual compass" which guides the body in its journey through the material world, trying to educate it to appreciate and pursue spirituality. Ultimately, the soul refines the physical until it becomes "one" with the soul. At that point, the body becomes a vehicle for the soul and, ultimately, the Will of G‑d. A person in this state is called a Tzaddik, one who is completely righteous.

Nourishing Your Soul

In addition to giving each of us a portion of Himself, G‑d gave us the Torah. The laws and mitzvot of the Torah nourish the soul and promote its full and complete expression. The Torah teaches the soul how to conquer and elevate both the animal nature of the body and the materiality of the world. When the time comes to leave, the soul returns to its source along with the Torah it studied, the mitzvot it performed, and the good deeds that it carried out in this world.

If however, a Jewish person lives life outside of or even in contradiction to the Torah, the pure G‑dly soul becomes stifled and sullied. Unless one does sincere Teshuva (return; repentance) in his lifetime, the soul remains this way until it separates from the body, when it returns to its source "empty-handed."

Your Soul's Unique Contribution

According to Kabbalah (Jewish mystical teachings), every soul has a mission to accomplish in this world. Each soul reveals and imparts G‑dliness to a part of the world that is exclusive to it. No other soul can accomplish its task. Further, fulfilling the task is necessary to the perfection of the world.

Therefore, Judaism takes the concept of individual responsibility to heart. One cannot say that "others are doing what Torah demands, so I need not concern myself with it." Judaism requires one's unique contribution, as does the world, which cannot be spiritually complete without it.

A way to discover your soul's mission and purpose is to search yourself for difficult spiritual hurdles: the mitzva or mitzvot that feel "too hard" or beyond your ability or level. We each have the things that come easy, and those that come only through hard work. Those difficult challenges are your true goal and life-task.

Challenging mitzvot are one kind of indicator. Deriving a deep satisfaction and pleasure from a particular mitzva could indicate that it, too, is germane to your soul's mission. Reviewing the results of your soul-searching with a friend or mentor will assure that the process and conclusions are objective.

Torah Living and the Body

It is no coincidence that we are taught that the 613 mitzvot in the Torah correspond to parts of the human body: The 248 positive commandments ("Do's..." ) relate to the body's 248 limbs, and the 365 prohibitions ("Dont's..." ) relate to the body's 365 vessels and sinews.

The Talmud and Kabbalah are full of stories in which a person's state of health reflected his or her state of spirituality. For example, if one had a digestive illness, he would concern himself with verifying the kosher status of the food he was eating. If one was suffering from depression, he would increase in charity. If one had difficulty conceiving, one reviewed the Torah's laws of family purity, and so on.

While the links aren't always as neat and simple as above, these stories illustrate the strong relationship that exists between our physical well-being and the full expression of our life-giving soul.

The ideal life is one in which the spiritual and physical complement each other, with each component getting what it needs to make the most of its time on earth.

Reincarnation and Second Chances

The Torah teaches that the soul is sent into this world to elevate its portion in the physical plane. Should it fail in anyway, or in any particular detail, it will come back to this world, in another body, until the task is complete.

For example, if the person excelled in Shabbat observance in one life but was lax in giving charity, his soul will have to live a completely new life to perfect the practice of giving charity, and the same goes for the rest of the mitzvot.

Keeping Body and Soul Together

As will be explained in the following chapters, Jewish law teaches us that every moment of life is extremely precious, and brings untold benefits to the soul.

Therefore, the Torah obligates each person to do all that is possible to keep body and soul united, prolonging life so that the soul can complete its mission, until G‑d decides it's time to collect the soul.

The Jewish Learning Group creates plain language how-to guides on Jewish law and custom, traditional prayer texts with transliteration and instruction, and educational audio and video guides. Their innovative products help people attain the rudimentary knowledge and confidence needed to build, lead, and further their Jewish observance at a comfortable and gradual pace.
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