The Jewish Approach to Life after Death
What matters most is maximizing our life before death.
Recently there's been a spate of new books presenting what the authors consider an unshakable case for the survival of consciousness beyond death, drawn from quantum mechanics, neuroscience and moral philosophy.
But I have to confess that having the inside information Judaism gave me – long before the publication of these new findings that claim to know what happens after our “full life of 120” – is far more satisfying than the most compelling and supposedly scientific validity for belief in an afterlife.
True, Jewish tradition never emphasized or even went into great detail about the specifics of the World to Come. It was simply a given, a fact rooted, as biblical commentators explained, in the notion that we are created “in the image of God.” Since God is eternal, there is something within every one of us – the Divine essence that represents our identity and that we refer to as our souls – that must of necessity be equally eternal and immortal.
The soul accompanies our journey through life, and does not forsake us with the end of our physical being.
Our bodies, as material creations, came from the dust of the earth and have to return to their source; they disintegrate when they are buried. But our souls are the gift of “Himself” that the Almighty breathed into us. They accompany us in our journey through life and do not forsake us with the end of our physical beings.
Judaism did not dwell on the obvious. Sure there is life after death; without it life would be rendered a transient flash in the pan, perhaps fun while it lasted but ultimately devoid of meaning. The Torah recorded the past as history; it chose to leave the future as mystery. Its purpose was primarily to be a “tree of life” concerned with teaching us how to improve ourselves and our world while we inhabit it. The details of our post-terrestrial existence were in the main left unrecorded. There will be time enough for us to discover the Divine master plan for the World to Come – once we get there.
But if we are to lead our lives with the proper sense of responsibility and purpose, there are some things that the Sages realized we have to know about. So they did give us a peek into the future after our deaths.
At the moment of death, we catch a glimpse of God. The Torah teaches us that God decreed, “No man can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The implication is clear: with the end of life we are granted the gift of a minute vision of the Almighty. That is the reason, many commentators suggest, that we are obligated to close the eyes of the deceased. The eyes that have now beheld God Himself must be shut off from any further contact with the profane.
And it is this momentary meeting that serves to give meaning to all of our lives. We suddenly grasp that everything we have ever done or said was in the presence of a Higher Power. Everything we accomplished or failed to do was judged by the One Who created us. “Know before whom you are destined to give a final accounting” is the language of the Talmud. Can there be a greater incentive to do good and not evil than the knowledge that in the end it is God Who will pass judgment on whether we were a success or a failure?
In Kabbalah, the mystics add a small piece to the story. It is not only God who judges us. As we bid farewell to the world, we are shown a film that contains scenes of our entire lives. We are witnesses to every moment of our days on Earth as they pass before us with incredible rapidity. And as we watch our own story unfold, there are times when we cringe with embarrassment; others when we smile with glee. Our past moral lapses cause us to shudder in pain; our victories over our evil inclinations provide us with a keen sense of spiritual triumph. It is then that we realize in retrospect that we alone are the greatest judges of our own lives. What happens after death is that we gain the wisdom to evaluate our own life by the standards of Heaven – because we have finally glimpsed an eternal perspective.
The Eternal, Here and Now
There is a synagogue in Jerusalem with a most unusual architectural feature. Built into one of the walls facing the congregants is a coffin. When I visited and remarked upon this seemingly morbid addition, one of the elders explained to me that this was a tradition their community maintained for many centuries. It had its roots in an effort to remind everyone of the cardinal truth that, being mortal, we are all destined someday to face our Maker. No one is exempt from the final judgment. To place this in the forefront of our consciousness every day, he smilingly said to me, is not morbid but surely a mitzvah.
No, we do not need to know the details of the World to Come. But we must constantly be aware of the reality that our days will be scrutinized by a Higher Authority – and that we ourselves will be forced to join in the Divine judgment.
There is no clear picture painted for us of Heaven and Hell. While belief in reward and punishment after death is, according to Maimonides, one of the 13 major principles of our faith, we have no way of knowing exactly what is meant by this concept. But we can hazard a guess. Since our entry into the next world is preceded by the obligation for every one of us to watch the film record of our lives, what greater Hell can there be than for us to have to acknowledge our shameful actions and our unconscionable failings unto all eternity? And what greater Heaven can there be than the ability to look back forever on personal acts of goodness, of charity, and of noble and pious behavior that made us find favor in the eyes of God?
That's why it's so important for us to affirm that death isn't the end. And even if we don't know exactly how our souls will be treated either above or below, we have been assured that the righteous are guaranteed rewards commensurate with their good deeds, and the wicked will rue the evil they perpetrated.
Hell is the deep realization that we squandered an important part of life.
What is Hell? Remember when you were in eighth grade and something utterly embarrassing happened? The shame you felt and how you just wanted the ground to open up so you could disappear. That is Hell. It is the deepest realization that our life (or part of it) has been squandered, which creates a deep regret and shame in our soul.
The good news is that God – in His infinite kindness – established this as a cleansing process, where after one year (or less), all the negativity has been forever washed away.
Closing the Curtain
So why think about what happens after death while we're still here? The answer is simple and at the same time most profound: Whatever actions we take on Earth must be with a sense of their eternal ramification.
Perhaps it's best reflected in the following story. A very wealthy man not known for his piety stood in a long line of those waiting to have their lives assessed by the heavenly court. He listened attentively as those who were being judged before him recounted both their spiritual failings and achievements. A number of them seemed to have the scales weighted against them until they suddenly remembered acts of charity they had performed, which dramatically tipped the scales in their favor. The rich man took it all in and smiled to himself.
When it was his turn, he confidently said, “I may have committed many sins during my lifetime, but I realize now what has the power to override them. I am a very wealthy man and I will be happy to write out a very large check to whatever charity you recommend.”
To which the court replied, “We are truly sorry, but here we do not accept checks – only receipts.”
The choices we make today create our eternal portion in the Next World.
The true tragedy of death is that it represents the closing curtain on our ability to do anymore mitzvot. We no longer have the free will to do good (or evil). It is only what we bring to that moment that can earn us entry into a state of eternal bliss. It's what we do here and now that truly matters. The choices we make today create our portion in the Next World. For eternity.
Death isn't a destroyer; it's a transition. As the chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk put it, “Death is just a matter of going from one room to another. And if we live our lives in accord with the will of God, we are certain that the place we are going to is ultimately the more beautiful area.”
Yes, there is life after death. But the greatest afterlife is achieved by focusing on how we can maximize our life before death.