How to Become Immortal
The "afterlife" is only what we make of it.
What happens when we die? King Solomon said, “The dust will return to the earth as it [originally] was, and the soul will return to God who granted it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). When we die, we don’t cease to exist. Death is merely the separation of body and soul; when we die, our body is buried, and our soul returns to God. The Afterlife is a spiritual existence, something that we can barely relate to as long as we are ensconced in this physical world.
But what does it look like?
There is an old Jewish joke. Two men die at the same time and are escorted upstairs. The first is a pious scholar, the second a scoundrel. The righteous individual is about to enter heaven, and the scoundrel asks the ministering angel if he can come and see where the virtuous are taken. His request is granted and he witnesses as the saintly individual is shown into a large study hall filled with books and scholars. The pious person sighs with pleasure and thanks the angel for directing him toward eternal bliss.
The angel then takes the renegade to his destination. Remarkably he is also taken to a study hall. However, his response differs; what could be more hellish than eternity in a library?
The Afterlife is a spiritual existence, something that we can barely relate to as long as we are ensconced in this physical world.
This fable alludes to a profound truth. Let’s consider a fundamental question. Most (religious) people presume that there is a place (whether physical or spiritual) called Heaven. In the Jewish tradition, this place is called Olam Haba; literally, the World to Come. But does Olam Haba actually exist? Some Jewish thinkers argue that yes, but not in the way we usually think of it.
King Solomon said that upon death, a person goes to his house (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Our Sages infer from this verse that a person builds his own eternal home. In other words, a person’s eternal home is uniquely theirs, created naturally by their choices in this world. To better appreciate this, consider the following basic question concerning the nature of Olam Haba. Reward in this world can be natural or artificial. For example, when I promise my daughter a lollipop for cleaning her room, the compensation is artificial because there is no inherent connection between the deed and the remuneration.
On the other hand, if she finds a missing toy while cleaning or enjoys the sight of the clean room, she is enjoying the natural consequences of the act.
What kind of reward is Olam Haba? We are arguing that it is primarily a natural reward.
Rationalists and mystics share this idea. According to Maimonides, Olam Haba is the natural result of virtuous conduct – because good deeds are transformative. When we do what is right, we make ourselves more spiritual. The spiritual existence of the soul after death is the natural consequence of one’s spiritual accomplishments while alive. Indeed, as Maimonides points out, the Torah refers to Olam Haba as “life,” suggesting that it is simply the natural outcome of a person’s spiritual achievements in this world.
Returning to our opening parable — if I perfect myself such that I appreciate that which is spiritual and not just that which is material, I will naturally appreciate the spiritual existence of the Afterlife. If, on the other hand, I focused only on material pleasures, never developing a taste for the spiritual, then I will have no appreciation for the sacred.
The spiritual existence of the soul after death is the natural consequence of one’s spiritual accomplishments while alive.
Kabbalists likewise suggest that the deeds and thoughts of a person build spiritual worlds of good and evil. These spiritual worlds are created by the performance of commandments, although most people are not sufficiently spiritually sensitive to perceive them while alive. Thus, a person doesn’t just go to Olam Haba; she goes to her own home, the place she built throughout her lifetime, unique to her personality and style.
Perhaps this view explains why Maimonides downplays the idea of Hell, barely mentioning it. According to Maimonides, the worst conceivable punishment in the next world is that one loses the opportunity to experience the spiritual existence of Olam Haba.
This might also explain why the Jewish tradition doesn’t focus on the nature of the Afterlife. Because the “the afterlife” is a book that is still being written. With each good deed we do in this world, we are transforming ourselves into a being that appreciates a type of existence beyond our wildest imagination.
So go ahead, do a good deed, and cement your eternity. What you do will last forever.