It is a basic tenet of Judaism that the death of the body does not represent man’s final demise: after this worldly life he moves on to another, eternal life.

Of course, Jewish literature states time and again that the afterlife is the better life. The soul, now free from the body, lives in eternal bliss. Consisting solely of pure spirit and basking in the glory of G‑d the soul finds its eternal rest.

Life in this world is trivial, we read, it is but for a few fleeting years. It is nevertheless of value—specifically in that it enables man to fulfill his duties concerning Torah and Mitzvot, and thereby earn his share in the World to Come. This life, states the Mishnah1, is but an antechamber, a place where man may prepare himself for the palace.

Life after death has the additional dimension that it provides the arena for ultimate reward and punishment. It is there and then that man faces the heavenly tribunal to account for his acts, and to experience reward or punishment accordingly.

Now, it is true that a casual reading of the Torah would suggest that reward and punishment occur primarily not in the next world but in relation to material well-being in this life, in the proverbial “children, health and livelihood2.” Scripture states, to quote one of numerous examples: “If you will follow my decrees I will provide your rains in their time3.” Several times a day we say in the Shema: “And it will come to pass if you shall surely listen to my commandments . . . And I shall give the rains... Beware, lest your hearts turn ... And G‑d’s anger shall be aroused... and He shall bar the heavens...4” Nevertheless, Torah giants throughout the ages have repeatedly emphasized that material comfort or its absence are neither ultimate reward nor ultimate punishment, respectively; these occur primarily in the afterlife.

What then is the function of material reward and punishment promised in Scripture? To paraphrase Maimonides’ explication5 of the roles of material and spiritual reward and punishment, i.e. reward in this life and in the afterlife, respectively: This life is merely corporeal, and the body is but contingent and temporary, eventually disintegrating. The soul is the eternal part of man. It has the capacity to merge with G‑d. By sublimating itself, by elevating itself above the body and the mundane character of this world during the time it is moored here to this physical reality, the soul frees itself from the life-death cycle and assumes eternity as G‑d Himself. If it fails to merge with the Divine whilst in this life, it is lost forever along with the body. Accordingly, ultimate reward amounts to spiritually merging with G‑d in the afterlife; ultimate punishment, being cut off from this greatest of opportunities. What then is the role of material reward and punishment as promised by the Torah? These are, as it were, merely “working conditions.” If man is found worthy, G‑d improves his working conditions by granting him material comfort, thereby enabling him to continue along the good path and eventually reach that which is truly good for him—in the afterlife. If he is found wanting, the reverse occurs.

True good, then, does not occur in this fleeting, temporary and mundane life, but in the subsequent eternal, spiritual life, unhindered by the wants and limitations of the contingent body. The afterlife is the ultimate reward, the ultimate life.

The Afterlife in Dirah Betachtonim

How all this changes in Dirah Betachtonim!

The motto of this system is a different Mishnaic dictum: “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World to Come6.” True, in the afterlife the soul basks in the glory of G‑d—but that is, precisely, the glory of G‑d. There the soul enjoys the experience of G‑dly character, G‑dly attributes or qualities—manifestations of the essence, but not the Essence itself. It is specifically in this world, in performing very human, very bodily good deeds that the essence of G‑d is reached. This world is not an antechamber: it is the palace itself.

But did not an earlier Mishnah state the reverse? Which, in fact, is this world, is it an “antechamber” or “better… than all life in the world to come7”? Says Dirah Betachtonim: it is both, depending on perspective—which Divine trend is in focus. In terms of the manifestations trend, this world where no Divine features are evident, where no G‑dly qualities are experienced, can only be an antechamber; whereas the afterlife is the sublime realm, where the soul enjoys an eternal haven of spirituality and G‑dliness. But in other words, the afterlife is a realm resplendent with G‑dly character—not the Divine Essence. Hence, conversely, in terms of the essential trend, it is in this world where man enjoys his best hours. For it is only here, by performing specifically mundane, bodily and finite acts that the Essence is reached.

The relative roles of the two lives in terms of reward and punishment undergo a similar change in Dirah Betachtonim. Where is the ultimate reward for mitzvot? Clearly in this, the ultimate world. Evidently, not in material gain, but in the very performance of physical mitzvot themselves—whereby the human merges with the Essence of G‑d. Basking in the glory of G‑d in the spiritual afterlife is merely a “fringe benefit” for the deserving person. The mainstay, the “salary,” is gained in terms of the unity of man’s essence with the Essence of G‑d in this world, in the very performing of mitzvot. To quote from Mishnah again: “The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah8.”

(Towards the end of the following chapter we will return to the theme of ultimate reward in the context of the end of time. Once again, we will find Dirah Betachtonim’s particular this-life orientation.)

The Yahrzeit in Dirah Betachtonim

The change of perspective on the relative values of this life and the afterlife becomes evident in a most striking way from the Rebbe’s observance of a forebear’s yahrzeit. A tzaddik’s yahrzeit has typically been celebrated as an occasion for a spiritual uplift—by drawing sustenance from the tzaddik’s soul on high. The tzaddik’s soul reaches new heights on his yahrzeit, and it is from that lofty station that those close to him seek to draw spirit on this special day into their mundane, lowly, this-worldly existence.

But at one particular yahrzeit, the Rebbe highlighted the very reverse: What is it, in fact, that grants the deceased the ability to reach new heights in the afterlife? Is it not the recital of Kaddish, the study of mishnayot and similar procedures associated with yahrzeit observance on the part of those close to him—down here? The deceased tzaddik, at the loftiest of stations, requires acts performed in this mundane physical world if he is to rise from height to height. By this point in our discussion this comes as no surprise: for it is specifically acts in this world that relate to the Essence of G‑d.