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Attaining Immortality

Attaining Immortality


What is the Jewish perspective on death? What is the proper way to commemorate a person’s passing? Today it is fashionable to pay homage to the deceased by “celebrating their lives,” instead of focusing on mourning. Is this a correct approach?

The Omer period seems to offer conflicting messages on this subject. On one hand, the Omer features restrictions on revelry and festivities, a sign of mourning for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples who lacked proper respect for each other. On the other hand, we shelve all vestiges of mourning for one day, Lag BaOmer. The primary reason? Because we joyously celebrate the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the passing) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai! Why the double standard?

Every person consists of a body and soul. The body eventually fades and returns to dust, while the immortal soul lives on for eternity. But with what is the “person” identified? Does the person die together with the body, or does he share the soul’s immortality? This depends on the person’s lifelong “affiliation.” The person whose life was affiliated with the soul, whose focus was spirituality and love of G‑d, doesn’t die. He merely moves on to a different dimension, where unencumbered by physical needs and distractions he is free to continue his pursuit of spirituality. Conversely, for the person who prioritized the desires and aspirations of the body, physical demise brings “life” to a crashing halt—his life’s focus is now forever gone.

Does the person die together with the body, or does he share the soul’s immortality?

On a deeper level, Torah and mitzvot, too, consist of a body and soul. The “revealed” side of Torah—largely comprised of the Talmud and Jewish law, the dos and don’ts—is the body of G‑d’s wisdom. The esoteric teachings of the Torah, the teachings of Kabbalah, are the soul of Torah. It is possible to be completely immersed in the brilliant minutiae of Talmudic logic, or to be meticulous in the observance of every nuance of the mitzvot, but to be as spiritually lifeless as a soulless body. The teachings of Kabbalah introduce the soul into Torah and mitzvot, explaining the profound spiritual meaning of every mitzvah in its supernal source, as well as the “spiritualization” of character which that mitzvah is intended to achieve in the heart and mind of its observer.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the embodiment of the soul-ful person. The Zohar, which he authored, is the fundamental Kabbalistic treatise, the most definitive work on the soul of the Torah. Many years of his life were spent in a cave, where he was hiding from the Roman authorities. While there, he was incapable of performing the “body” of most mitzvot; he did not have access to matzah on Passover, or the Four Species on Sukkot. Instead, the holy books explain, he focused on the “soul” of the mitzvot: bathing in the G‑dly light which pervades every commandment. No words can better describe Rabbi Shimon’s soul-ful life than those he himself uttered on the day of his passing: “All the days of my life, I was knotted to Him in one knot . . . With Him my soul is one; with Him [my soul] is ablaze; with Him I am united.”

Such a person does not die. The yahrtzeit of such a person is duly celebrated—a celebration of the person’s immortality.

Rabbi Akiva’s students were deficient in their “soul-fulness”. Their disrespect for their colleagues stemmed from a preoccupation with externalities—body-related features and qualities. At the core, the soul of a Jew is intrinsically united with the soul of every other Jew. Thus, the soul-ful person loves and respects every Jew as naturally as he loves and cares for himself. This critical flaw led to the demise of these promising scholars. And, unlike Rabbi Shimon, their death was real—a tragedy mourned by our nation to this day.

Lag BaOmer’s lesson for us is exceedingly clear: we must choose the path which leads to immortality. This includes:

  • Focusing on the soul: heeding her call and quenching her thirst for a more spiritual life. The first step in this process is allowing her to express her fiery passion through daily meaningful prayer.
  • Focusing on the soul of Torah: studying the teachings of Kabbalah, specifically as they are applied and explained in the teachings of Chassidut. Join a class on the subject known as the “Tree of Life.”
  • Focusing on the soul of the mitzvot: not sufficing with the physical act of any given mitzvah, but allowing the message of the mitzvah to impact our character and attitude.

You can be a Soul Survivor.

Adapted by Naftali Silberberg from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Anonymous Texas April 25, 2013

I wonder As a girl (I'm now 72 years young) I was not educated the same way boys/men were/are. However, I do my best. I love Hashem, I study Torah, most of all I perform various mitzvahs which I keep between Hashem and myself. I'm not wealthy, I cannot contribute large sums of money to do much. When I went to Hebrew school, I was taught how to read Hebrew but was NOT taught what the words meant! I try to be spiritual to the best I can. Hope that's good enough. Reply

Brenda Toronto, Canada April 23, 2013

The Prayer to build the Soul There is only one prayer that G_d wants to hear - to give us strength to rise above the 'body' - the self-love, and then the intention to connect us as one heart through the spark that evokes this desire in us.
In this way Rabbi Shimmon attained the highest spiritual level - the revelation of G_d through the quality of G_dliness.
Pysical actions are not the means to build our one soul. The monstrous ego has reached .it's climax - It's time to study the soul of the Torah - The spiritual meaning found in The Zohar. Reply

yaakov karp cincinnati, OH May 6, 2012

very good, thank you what are the sources of this essay? Reply

Sandy Auburn, California May 4, 2010

Thank you for this. I appreciated this. Thanking you for posting it. Reply

Pamela Ruth Jones buffalo, NY via April 29, 2010

Attaining Immortality Thank you for sharing your writings with us laypeople. It makes sense and has practical guidelines for application to life and the meaning of existence. I try to keep the focus on spirituality, and your article conveys why that's important to live by.

I've read a previous article you wrote on Spiritual Warfare that I just loved. It speaks to the heart, like your other writings seem to also. G-d bless, and shalom! Reply

georgianna Boston May 11, 2009

Attaining Immortality Thank you for such a wonderful essay. So often, after reading something that stirs you, you are left with the question of next steps. Thank you especially for the clear and practical directives. Reply

Kelly Rae (Leeba) Sydney, AU May 11, 2009

Thank you for clarity on this important and often unasked subject. Reply

Cindy (Simcha) Cullen via May 18, 2008

Lag BaOmer Thank you for this article. It helps make senses of some things...
My brother of blessed memory, Yeshia Eliahu Cullen, passed on last November. His birthday falls on Lag BaOmer.
He was a very spiritual guy, a wonderful brother and a soulful yid. He was happiest praying, studying and celebrating simcha's. He worked for Jewish unity, preached love of your fellow jew and always had a special interest in the esoteric aspects of Torah.
Your article fits his life and gives me a positive perspective for his passing on. I am grateful for the elevation of his soul. I am selfishly missing him very much. Reply