“All Israel have a share in the World to Come.”1

The Basic Conception

The above assurance is perhaps the most commonly quoted of the many Talmudic references to Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Yet there are two schools of thought as to what the Talmud means by this term.

Before these two views are distinguished, however, it should be noted that the following basic conception of the soul and its descent to this world is shared by all the thinkers concerned:

The soul, being2 “a part of G‑d,” is immortal: it exists both before its descent into the body and after its departure.

The purpose of the descent is twofold:3

(a) By serving G‑d while enclothed in the body below, the soul is enabled to upgrade the status that it will enjoy after leaving the body. Its descent was thus undertaken for the sake of a subsequent ascent.4 (Conversely, if the soul fails in its mission, it later finds itself below the level which it left before descending into the body.)

(b) The refining of the body and the physical world.

How is this done?

King Solomon says (Mishlei 20:27): “The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d.” But why does the Creator of light need a lamp? — Because since the world is dark, the soul of man (a spark from the Divine luminary) is placed within the body and the physical world in order to illuminate it. By thus revealing the hidden Presence of G‑d, the soul constructs a dwelling place for Him.

The two schools of thought as to what the Talmud means by the World to Come may be outlined as follows:

The View of Rambam

Rambam5 maintains that the World to Come (Olam HaBa) is the World of Souls (Olam HaNeshamos), which is often referred to as the Garden of Eden (Gan Eden). It is from this pool of souls in the spiritual realms that every soul departs when it is about to descend into a body, and it is to this same state that the soul returns when it leaves the body at the conclusion of its mission.6 Ultimately, when the time comes for the Resurrection, this will be (as conceived by Rambam) a transient stage, for after the Resurrection the body will again die, and the soul will return to the World to Come, i.e., to the World of Souls.

The View of the Other Major Authorities

In contrast to the view of Rambam, most authorities7 hold that the phrase “World to Come” in the Talmud refers to the era of the Resurrection of the Dead. (This state is called Olam HaTechiyah; literally, “the World of the Resurrection.”)

It goes without saying that both Resurrection and the World of Souls are fundamental concepts in the thinking of all the authorities concerned.8 The difference lies in the following question: What is the ultimate good which the Jewish people will merit? Is it the spiritual World of Souls, as Rambam maintains, or (as conceived by most authorities) will that good become manifest within the context of material reality at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead?

In other words, Rambam holds that after the Resurrection of the Dead, people will still die and inherit their ultimate reward in the World of Souls.9 The other authorities maintain that after death all souls abide in the World of Souls until the Resurrection, at which time they are finally enclothed in a body and in that state are granted their ultimate reward.

It should be noted that this difference of opinion between Rambam and the other authorities was meaningful only in their days, for since the AriZal — whose pronouncements in the esoteric areas of the Torah have been universally accepted — ruled according to the majority opinion, this is to be accepted as the final halachah.10

The majority opinion, however, requires clarification. Surely spiritual rewards would be loftier if they were awarded to a soul that is detached (as in the World of Souls) from the limitations of a physical body! How could it be that, according to most authorities, the soul’s ultimate reward will be in this world?

To rephrase the question: Why a bodily Resurrection? If the purpose of resurrection is spiritual reward, why reward the soul in a body, and not alone?

One could argue, that since the body plays a role in earning the reward, Divine Providence demands that the body too be rewarded: hence Resurrection. A Talmudic parable11 illustrates this.

A blind man and a lame man both desired to raid a certain orchard — but how? The lame man therefore climbed up on the shoulders of the blind man, and directed him there. When the owner caught them separately on their way out, each protested that he could not have stolen alone. The resourceful owner thereupon sat the lame man on the shoulders of the blind man, and administered their punishment together....

However, this parable explains only a certain level of reward that is appropriate to the soul as it resides in the body; it does not explain why the ultimate reward must involve the body as well. In other words, the above explanation could also be consonant with the view of Rambam, that Resurrection will be followed by an ultimate reward in the World of Souls. It does not suffice to explain the position of Ramban (Nachmanides) and the other authorities that the ultimate reward will only involve the soul in a body.12

As mentioned above, the Kabbalists13 concur with this majority opinion, so we shall look to chassidic philosophy for a solution.

A Chassidic Perspective

In general terms, Resurrection may be viewed from two angles: (a) as the perfection of mankind, and (b) as an era of reward for man’s efforts in fulfilling the will of the Creator.

In truth these two points blend into one, since man and the entire universe are created in such a way that they climb the ladder of perfection step by step. As man through his own efforts nears perfection, he is helped from above to attain a level which transcends his own limitations. To paraphrase the words of the Sages,14 A man sanctifies himself a little below, in this world, and he is granted further sanctity from above, in the World to Come.15

Obviously, a reward is something that is perceived by the recipient as good. Indeed, it may be measured by the recipient’s appreciation of it. For example: A worker may receive his reward in the form of bread and clothes. A student who has served his master may be rewarded by tuition. As a further reward, the master may reveal to him his purpose in creation and the pathway through which he can access this purpose.

Given that the everlasting wealth of spiritual possessions is superior to physical possessions, it is obvious that wisdom is a greater reward than food, and that the greatest of all rewards is to be shown the pathway to eternity. Man’s body and soul, however, are created and therefore finite; moreover, the pleasure they experience and the rewards they can appreciate are likewise finite.

Some levels of goodness are within our range of perception and some are beyond. Beyond all other levels, is the level attained when one fulfills the commandments of the Creator, for a mitzvah connects finite man to his infinite Creator. (As explained in ch. 2 above, the root of the word mitzvah implies “connection”.) Since there can be no greater good than being connected to the infinite G‑d, the very performance of a mitzvah is in itself the greatest reward attainable. In the words of the Mishnah,16 “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah” — i.e., the mitzvah itself.17

The greatest kindness G‑d bestowed upon man is that in the Torah He clearly showed the way to self-perfection. Indeed, the very word Torah stems from the word horaah (“teaching”),18 for the Torah, G‑d’s directive to man, encompasses the entire life of man from his very first moment on.

The perfection of any entity may be gauged against the purpose for which it was originally created. What is the purpose of creation in general and of man in particular?19 — “The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have an abode in the lower worlds.”

As mentioned in ch. 2, the self-screening process by which the infinite light of the Divine is attenuated by downward stages until a finite, physical world is created, is termed the Seder Hishtalshelus. The successive links that comprise this chainlike scheme are called “worlds”, each of which progressively conceals the Essence of the Divine. The purpose of creation is not the existence of the “higher” worlds (such as the World of Souls) but this world of ours, which, in terms of revelation, is the lowest of all.20

It is specifically in this world of spiritual darkness that G‑d wished “to have an abode.” This abode is constructed by the observance of the commandments, for a mitzvah is one of the means by which mortal man can connect himself with his Creator. When performing a practical mitzvah, man connects the material entity concerned, and at the same time his own animal soul, to G‑d. In the terminology of Chassidus, this is called the revelation of the Ein-Sof (infinite) light in this world.21

This involves the transformation of yesh (lit., “there exists”), i.e., material and corporeal existence, into ayin (lit., “nothingness”). This elective self-nullification in the face of G‑d’s will allows His infinite light to become manifest in this world. It is thus the foundation of the Torah and its mitzvos, as it is written,22 “G‑d commanded us to perform all these decrees in order that we stand in awe of [Him].”23 In other words, the Torah and its commandments were given in this world to a soul garbed in a physical body so that the bodily and worldly yesh should be transformed into ayin and thereby become a self-effacing receptacle for the light of Divinity.

Since the revelation of this light in the world is the purpose for which the world was created, it is clear that the intensity of this revelation will depend on the extent to which man elevates the physical world.

History as a Ladder

Now, just as man matures in his abilities, progressing from easy tasks to the more difficult, so too in his capacity to receive a reward, he first has the ability to perceive a dimmer revelation of spiritual light — for this, as mentioned above, is man’s true reward — and thereafter his perceptive capacity grows. (There were times in history when there was a G‑dly revelation above and beyond the capacity of that particular time, such as at the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah.)

In fact the entire created universe is advancing up the ladder of perfection and gradually becoming more refined. In terms of world history, this elevation has three rungs:

1. The present era.

2. The Messianic era.

3. The Resurrection.

In the first era, the period before the advent of Mashiach, the world is preoccupied with a constant battle between the forces of good and evil. Since man has been granted free will he may perhaps decide to do evil, at which point he will fall in spiritual level. He is also granted the capacity to undertake teshuvah, to return and repent, and thereby rectify his sin and be elevated to an even higher level than his previous state.

During the second era, the Messianic era, the battle against evil will have been won, redemption will replace exile, and man will return to the level of perfection that characterized Adam before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.24 The sitra achara (lit., “the other side,” a Kabbalistic euphemism for evil) will still exist in the world — in the “mixed multitude”25 — and this will affect the level of perfection attainable by the Children of Israel. The persistence of evil in the world explains the opinion of those who hold that all those living in the Messianic era will die (even if momentarily) before Resurrection, in order to be cleansed of this impurity.26

The days of Mashiach represent the zenith of what man can achieve by utilizing his own capabilities. At that time the Torah and its commandments will be observed27 universally: “this day — to observe them,” will apply not only to our current era but the Messianic era as well.28

In the third period, the period of the Resurrection, evil will be utterly eradicated. The world will know neither sin nor death, for29 “in time to come G‑d Himself will take hold of the Evil Inclination [and hence the Angel of Death] and slaughter it.” In this period man will be granted a gift from above — perfection not only commensurate with his abilities but beyond them. There will be no more observance of mitzvos.30 The righteous will sit with crowns on their heads and delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence.31

This reward will be granted to the soul garbed in a body, for at that time the original purpose for which the universe was created will have been fulfilled — to create a dwelling place for G‑d in the lower worlds.32 The developmental process of revelation33 outlined above, proceeding from exile to the Messianic era and climaxing in the Resurrection, thus explains the necessity for Resurrection.

Man’s Perception of Divinity

Until this point, we have focused on this developmental process from the perspective of the perfection of man and his purpose in creation. Now, borrowing the language of chassidic philosophy,34 we shall endeavor to explain in further depth the differences between these three stages from the perspective of man’s perception and sensation of Divinity.

Speaking of his own experience Iyov (Job) says,35 “From my flesh I perceive G‑d,” and the Gemara states,36 “Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, pervades the entire world, so too does the soul pervade the entire body.”

The life-force with which the soul nourishes the body is of three kinds. In ascending order: (1) the life-force that is apportioned to each of the various organs (e.g., the faculty of intellect in the brain, vision in the eye, and so on); (2) the faculty of will, which is not divided, but pervades the individual comprehensively; (3) the essence of the soul, which transcends the soul-faculties of both the above levels, and which is totally spiritual.

Since the coarseness and corporeality of the body conceal the spiritual nature of the soul, a man cannot actually experience the essence of the spiritual; he can only feel its existence through the soul-faculties that express themselves in his body.

True to the above-quoted analogy (“Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, pervades the entire world, so too does the soul pervade the entire body”), the Divine life-force in the universe is likewise of three kinds. In ascending order: (1) the level of memale kol almin (lit., the Divine light which “fills all worlds”), i.e., the Divine Presence that is garbed within the created world and whose radiance is apportioned according to the level of each world; (2) the level of sovev kol almin (lit., the Divine light which “encompasses all worlds”), i.e., that pervades all worlds yet remains undivided (corresponding to the faculty of will in the body); (3) the Essence of G‑d that utterly transcends the worldly dimension. (The levels of memale kol almin and sovev kol almin subdivide many times over.)

As in the analogy of the body, we creatures of this material world cannot perceive the quality of the G‑dly light, even at the level of memale kol almin. It is only through G‑d’s works (such as the heavenly bodies) that we know of His existence; in the words of the prophet,37 “Raise your eyes heavenward and see Who created these.” In the World of Souls — the Garden of Eden in which the physical body does not conceal or interfere — the soul actually experiences the level of memale kol almin. Beyond that, during the Messianic era, when the physicality of the created universe will be refined and the Image of G‑d will radiate within man as it did before the sin of Adam, there will be a revelation at the level of sovev kol almin. The ultimate stage will come with the Resurrection, when the Essence of G‑d will be revealed.38

The Tzemach Tzedek39 explains further that the light of the Garden of Eden, however sublime, cannot be revealed in physicality, whereas the light of the Essence, being unlimited, can be revealed even in physicality — in the spirit of the Kabbalistic principle that “that which is higher descends lower.” This explains why at the time of the Resurrection even Moshe Rabbeinu and the Patriarchs will be obliged to descend from the Garden of Eden for the Resurrection (even though they have been proceeding there from strength to strength for thousands of years) — for the level of Divinity that they perceive in the Garden of Eden, however lofty, is still limited, whereas at the time of the Resurrection the light of the Essence will be revealed.40

Summary

Resurrection thus involves both a perfection in the state of man and a revelation of the Essence of G‑d, and both these ideal states fuse in fulfillment of the purpose of creation. Hence the necessity for bodily Resurrection.

A final point: The Alter Rebbe explains41 that G‑d chose the Jewish people not only on account of the exalted nature of the Jewish soul, but rather on account of the material body, which outwardly resembles the bodies of the other nations. By virtue of this choice the body retains an element of eternity, for despite its eventual decomposition, the luz bone (see ch. 9) lasts forever, and from it the body will ultimately be reconstructed.42