“Nothing can stand in the way of repentance.”1

What of the Wicked?

The Mishnah2 first states that all Israel have a share in the World to Come, but then proceeds to name categories of people who are excluded.

Do the wicked have a share in the World to Come?

After detailing which kinds of transgressors belong to the categories excluded,3 Rambam concludes: “When does the statement that such an individual does not have a share in the World to Come apply? — When he dies without having repented. However, if he repents of his wickedness and dies a penitent,4 he will be one of those admitted to the World to Come, for nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah. Even if he denied G‑d’s existence all his days and repented at the last, he has a share in the World to Come. This is implied by the verse,5 ‘Peace, peace, to the distant and the near, declares G‑d, and I shall heal him.’ Any wicked person, sinner or apostate, who repents, whether overtly or in private, is accepted. This is implied by the verse,6 ‘Return, wayward children.’ Even though he is still wayward, as is apparent from the fact that he repents in private and not overtly, his teshuvah is accepted.”

What of Those who Do Not Repent?

If so, anyone who repents either privately or publicly before he dies will merit a place in the World to Come. But what of those who do not repent before they die?

The Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources make it clear that they too will have a place in the World to Come.

1. In the first place, a righteous son may secure his wicked and undeserving father admission to the World to Come.7 Conversely, we find8 that King David’s prayers granted his rebellious son Avshalom access to the World to Come.9 Moreover, the intercession of R. Yochanan10 enabled even Acher11 to be admitted the Garden of Eden, though he was neither a relative12 nor a student.13

2. The Talmud 138 relates that even though Yehoyakim was a wicked king, he was atoned by the disgrace that his body underwent after death. Elsewhere, too, the Sages teach14 that the indignity of a body after death is a sign of atonement, and this is stated without any mention of prayers offered by relatives or others.

Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud15 states that even Yeravam and his company, of whom the Mishnah says that they will not be granted entry to the World to Come, were in fact admitted after their bodies had been consumed by fire many years after their death.16

3. The following verse speaks of ultimate repentance:17 “For die we must, like water that flows on the ground and that cannot be gathered up again; and G‑d favors not a soul, but He devises means that he that is banished be not cast away from Him.” Citing the closing phrase of this verse as an assurance (that no one banished from G‑d by his sins will remain banished), R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes18 that every Jew will eventually repent, either in this incarnation or another.

4. The Sages interpret Jeremiah’s vision19 of two baskets of figs, one very good and one very bad, on the non-literal level of derush, making use of the fact that the same Hebrew word (duda’im) can mean either “baskets” or the fragrant plants called mandrakes. To quote their words:20 “The good figs allude to the perfectly righteous and the bad ones allude to the completely wicked, but lest you think that the latter may be beyond all hope, observe the verse that states,21 ‘And the mandrakes (duda’im) give forth a fragrance.’ ” The case of the wicked is never hopeless; at some future time, even the basket of seemingly worthless figs will, like the fragrant mandrake, give forth a sweet fragrance.22

5. The Sages23 teach that even the sinners among Israel are as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate is full of seeds; they, too, will therefore have a share in the World to Come.24

6. The Kabbalistic classic entitled Emek HaMelech writes:25 “Now children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of G‑d, and His holy love for us.... Why does G‑d trouble Himself with the wicked who anger Him at every possible moment? There are two answers: (1) Even though they are utterly wicked, there are sparks of holiness in them...; their soul which is a part of G‑d is eternal...; He breathed it into them; (2) the handiwork of G‑d lasts forever and can never cease.26 It is this second reason that was the point of the patriarch Abraham’s prayer when G‑d showed him Gehinom and Exile through which all the wicked would be corrected, for He has mercy on all His creatures.”27

This passage suggests that since the souls of the wicked are “part” of G‑d, it is inconceivable that they will not eventually return to Him. It is through the troubles of the exile that this will be achieved. As Rambam points out,28 based on the opinion of R. Yehoshua,29 the Torah has promised that at the end of their exile Israel will repent.

7. Both Midrash Shmuel30 and the Alshech31 write explicitly that the A-mighty troubles Himself with correcting the wicked so that they too will eventually merit a share in the World to Come.

Who Has No Place in the World to Come?

Some path, somewhere, is thus always left open for the footsteps of the wicked who seek atonement. At the end of time, moreover, all the wicked will in fact be granted a share in the World to Come.

What, then, is meant by the mishnah which declares that there are those who have no place in the World to Come?

A close scrutiny of its wording reveals its true intent:32 “All Israel have a share in the World to Come, as it is said,33 ‘Your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in whom I take pride.’ And these have no share in the World to Come:...” — and those categories of people are enumerated in the passages that follow. Now surely one would have expected the mishnah to read, “All Israel have a share in the World to Come... except...”34 The mishnah, however, does not use this word, which would present its two stances as outright opposites. How, then, can it enumerate categories of people who have no share in the World to Come if all Israel do have a share in it?

By way of a solution: The World to Come as mentioned in the mishnah refers (as discussed above) to the Resurrection, viz., the return of the soul into a resurrected body. When the mishnah says that all Israel have a share in the World to Come, it refers to the soul: all souls will eventually be resurrected, even the souls of the wicked, but not all bodies will necessarily be resurrected. As stated above, all souls are repeatedly reincarnated until they have fulfilled all the commandments. If a person was wicked in one incarnation, that body will not be resurrected; instead, his soul will be resurrected in a body that dates from one of its other incarnations.35

The above explanation, which builds on the writings of the AriZal,36 is based on the premise that the soul is cleansed through the process of reincarnation even more than through Gehinnom.37

Kares: The Punishment of Excision

The plain meaning of this punishment, which the Torah reserves for a limited number of serious offenses (including breaking the fast of Yom Kippur), is that the soul is cut off. This is further implied by a statement of the Sages38 regarding excision both in this world39 and the next.

Rambam defines it as follows:40 “The reward of the righteous is that they will merit this bliss [i.e., the World to Come] and take part in this good. The retribution of the wicked is that they will not merit this life, but will be cut off and will die. Whoever does not merit this life is truly dead and will not live forever, but will be cut off in his wickedness and perish like a beast. This is the kares of which the Torah writes,41 ‘That soul shall surely be cut off.’ [Considering the dual form of the verb, hikares tikares,] the oral tradition explains: hikares means that the soul will be cut off in this world; tikares means that it will be cut off in the World to Come. [Such] a soul that is separated from the body in this world does not merit the life of the World to Come. Rather, even in the World to Come it is cut off....

“The42 retribution beyond which there is no greater retribution is that the soul will be cut off and not merit this life; as it is written,172 ‘That soul shall surely be cut off: his sin shall remain upon him.’ This is the obliteration of the soul which the prophets referred to metaphorically as43 ‘the pit of destruction,’ or44 ‘obliteration’.... All the synonyms for annihilation and destruction are used to refer to it, for it is the ultimate annihilation after which there is no renewal and the ultimate extinction that can never be undone.”

There were many who misinterpreted these statements of Rambam as implying that a sinning soul would not undergo punishment in Gehinnom, which is a state of purgatory in the World of Souls. In fact this was one of the reasons for the proposed banning of this work.45 In its defense, however, Ramban (Nachmanides) cited proofs that Rambam also believed in the existence of other punishments, though he saw excision as the ultimate and final punishment.

At the same time, a concept that left Ramban unconvinced was the ultimate obliteration of a wicked soul. As he writes, it is inconceivable that a sublime soul which is in fact a “spark of G‑d” should ever become extinct.46

Modes of Retribution

The Kabbalists offer an explanation which is something of a compromise. It is well known that the soul comprises (in ascending order) five levels:47 Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, Yechidah — and only the level of Nefesh can be affected by excision.48

As an alternative solution: One of the sources for the concept of everlasting retribution for the worst of the wicked is the Talmudic statement49 that certain non-believers, informers and others “will descend to Gehinnom and be prosecuted for endless generations...; Gehinnom will eventually come to an end but [their punishment] shall not.” According to the simple and classical interpretation of this teaching, though Gehinnom is only a means of correction for the soul, and at some future time it will no longer be needed, these sinners will nevertheless continue to suffer.

The respective authors of Asarah Maamaros50 and Emek HaMelech51 interpret otherwise: Gehinnom, which is a negative force, will come to an end, and these souls will eventually be reaccepted and purified.

Combining the above explanation with the Kabbalistic view, it could be said that those in the most extreme of the above categories will be subjected to a long period of excision and will undergo the cleansing of Gehinnom, but when the time comes and Gehinnom has completed its mission in the universe,52 they too will have been rectified and rehabilitated.

It is also in this light that the commentaries explain the teaching of the Sages,180 that those who sin bodily “descend to Gehinnom where they are prosecuted for twelve months, after which their body ceases to exist and their soul is burned, and the wind scatters them under the feet of the righteous.” Here, too, a superficial glance might well give the impression that the souls of the wicked will be destroyed. However, the above commentaries53 explain that these souls will undergo a change of form: just as something burned returns to ashes, so too will the souls of the wicked be reformed — except that their standing will be far inferior to that of the righteous.

The Resurrection of Righteous Gentiles

The Midrash54 states clearly that the Resurrection applies to Israel, while the commentary entitled Yfei Toar explains that it includes righteous gentiles as well. The Zohar55 implies that the idolatrous nations of the world will not be resurrected.56

Overpopulation

R. Saadiah Gaon57 makes a calculation58 that when the time comes the world will be extensive enough to accommodate all those resurrected. R. Yaakov Emden59 dismisses this calculation: just as the Resurrection will be miraculous, so, too, at that time the earth will miraculously cope with all its inhabitants. In this spirit the Talmud often speaks of situations (such as in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash60 ) in which G‑d’s transcendence of space so completely permeated the physical universe, that a limited area miraculously held many people. The Midrash teaches even more specifically:61 “When G‑d told Moshe Rabbeinu to convene the Jewish people at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, Moshe complained, ‘A-mighty G‑d: How can I possibly stand 600,000 men and 600,000 youths at the entrance to the Tent which is a plot of land that is only big enough to yield two seah of grain?’ And G‑d replied: ‘...So, too, in time to come, will I do the same in Zion: All the world’s population from Adam until the Resurrection will come and complain about the shortage of space, and I will broaden it for them.’ ”

As to feeding such a population, the Midrash writes:62 “He who brings the people will provide for them.”63

Summary

After undergoing various forms of rectification, including even reincarnation followed by cleansing in Gehinnom,64 all Jewish souls — including the souls of the wicked — will eventually be resurrected, though not all bodies. The principle that “all Israel have a portion in the World to Come” thus refers to the souls. The teachings of the Sages regarding those individuals who will not rise at the Resurrection refer to the bodies of the wicked, whose souls will be resurrected in different bodies.65

As to the delicate question of who are the wicked, we can do no better than conclude our chapter with the same quotation66 with which the Rebbe chose to conclude his classic responsum on this subject:67 “Blessed be G‑d — the G‑d of Abraham, the epitome of kindness — Who has not removed His kindness from His people Israel. None shall be left forlorn, for His mercy has no end, and68 ‘all Israel have a share in the World to Come’; as it is written,69 ‘Your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in whom I take price.’ ”