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The Liberating Experience of Judgment

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

Yes these are Days of Awe, but they are days of exhilaration too.

According to Judaism, 1 each of us undergoes three different types of Days of Judgment Days:

  1. Rosh Hashanah, which is an annual review of one's actions over the previous year used to determine one's material circumstances for the upcoming year;
  2. Day of death, which reviews the deceased person's life and determines whether it is ready for Paradise;
  3. The Great Day of Judgment, which is an event in the future, at the end of history as we know it, when all who lived are resurrected, and are judged whether they are worthy of everlasting life in a spiritualized renewed physical world (according to most authorities) to frolic in the splendor of God's Presence.

All this judgment strikes the contemporary mind as backward, even offensive. It only reinforces the stereotypic image of "Old Testament" Judaism as a religion of fear, not love.

Well, yes, judgment – whether on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Death, or the "Great Day of Judgment" – contains the general air of awe and seriousness. There is no sense trying to sugarcoat or diminish the magnitude of these events.

Nevertheless, what's often lost to the contemporary mind is the liberating experience judgment entails. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are found in a surprising place.


The phenomenon of the Near Death Experiences is a hot topic today. Reader's Digest ran a recent article on the subject, quoting various respected researchers. On September 10, Reuters reported how scientists in Britain are setting up a major experiment, involving 25 hospitals and systematically interviewing scores of people who have survived cardiac arrest to determine "once and for all" whether the mind can step outside the body at the brink of death.

Documented for some 30 years by doctors and researchers, a Near Death Experience (NDE) typically entails a very rich, vivid procession of sensations involving many senses from people who, from a strict medical standpoint, should have seen or felt nothing. Yet, not only could they see and feel, but they experienced sensations that were larger than life, including floating above their bodies and watching the impassioned efforts of others to revive them, traveling through a type of tunnel, and encounters with deceased relatives, beings of light or with an all-encompassing warm, restorative light and a life review. All these are consistent with rabbinic writings recorded many centuries before.2

The "life review," in particular, shares some of the most poignant similarities. And one of the most important themes that emerges from the many, many documented accounts is the liberating high of the experience:

"It was like I knew everything that was stored in my brain. Everything I'd ever known about from the beginning of my life I immediately knew about… And there was no hiding anything – the good times, the bad times, everything… I had a total clear knowledge of everything… Every single thing that you do in your life is recorded and that even though you pass it by not thinking at the time, it always comes up later. For instance, you may be…at a stoplight and you're in a hurry and the lady in front of you, when the light turns green, doesn't take right off, and you get upset and start honking your horn and telling [her] to hurry up. Those are the little kind of things that are recorded that you don't realize at the time are really important." (Heading Toward Omega by Dr. Kenneth Ring)

Note how closely this echoes Talmudic teachings such as, "All a person's deeds are written in a book" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1), even the deeds that a person "tramples beneath his heel [i.e. disregards as of little or no importance]" (Talmud, Avodah Zara 18a).

Another NDEr:

"The most important thing I learned from this experience was that I am responsible for everything I do. Excuses and avoidance were impossible when I was… reviewing my life. And not only that, I saw that responsibility is not bad in the least…. It's funny, but my failings have become very dear to me in a way, because they are my failings, and darn it, I am going to learn from them come hell or high water…. Everything you have done is there (in the review) for you to evaluate, and as unpleasant as some parts of it are for you to see, it feels so good to get it all out…. When I was there in that review there was no covering up. I was the very people that I hurt, and I was the very people I helped to feel good. I wish I could find some way to convey to everyone how good it feels to know that you are responsible…. It is the most liberated feeling in the world." (From The Light Beyond, by Raymond Moody, MD)

The goal of divine judgment in the Torah eyes is improvement, not punishment.

Similarly, the goal of divine judgment in the Torah eyes is improvement, not punishment. The root of the Hebrew word often translated "rebuke" (tochachah) means "to prove." The idea is that the person's shortcoming is "proved" to them beyond all shadow of a doubt. It is not rebuke in the sense, "Repent ye sinners!" It's more the art – preferably the gentle art – of showing someone the fallacy of their ways for the purpose of their general improvement.

The best type of re-proof is the type that allows the individual to come to the conclusion on his or her own. That is why on the question, "Who testifies [at one's judgment after death]?" the Talmud answers, "A person's own soul" (Talmud, Taanis 11a). Judgment must come from within if it is worth anything.

Ultimately the person himself is the judge of his actions, and thus the first to admit to the truth of the information brought to fore. Thus, the Talmud teaches:

"When a person departs to his eternal home all his deeds are enumerated before him and he is told, 'You have done such and such an act in such and such place on such and such day.' And he replies, 'Yes.' They say to him, 'Sign.' And he signs…. And even more so, he acknowledges the justice of the verdict and says, 'You have judged me well…'" (Talmud, Taanis 11a)


Amplifying this point, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his fascinating essay Immortality And The Soul, cites philosopher Henri Bergson's suggestion that one of the main functions of the brain is to eliminate activity and awareness, rather than produce it. It serves as a type of radar jamming equipment for all the sensations and memories that would otherwise overwhelm us if allowed to pour into our minds at once. The brain is thus a kind of "reducing valve."

With this understanding, imagine the experience of death, writes Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

"Imagine standing naked before God, with your memory wide open, completely transparent without any jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force. You will remember everything you ever did.... The memory of every good deed would be the sublimest of pleasures... But your memory will also be open to all the things of which you are ashamed. They cannot be rationalized away or dismissed. You will be facing yourself, fully aware of the consequences of all your deeds. We all know the terrible shame and humiliation when one is caught in the act of doing something wrong. Imagine being caught by one's own memory with no place to escape..."

The "life review" process then is not a removed reward or punishment, but rather a cause and effect of a person's life. Whatever a person does good will be experienced as good. Whatever a person does bad will be experienced as bad. Those feelings not only persist, but are magnified after death. And it is they that constitute the essential heaven and hell, happiness and shame, which characterize the basic Torah idea of reward and punishment in the Afterlife.


What we do in life echoes to eternity. Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen (the "Chofetz Chaim") sums that thought up with the following parable.

The only possession you take with you when you're summoned before the King of Kings is the legacy of your life.

A wealthy man was summoned to the palace of the king. In those days, a summons was almost assuredly a bad sign; the person was in trouble with the authorities. It was then that the man found out who his true friends were. Some "friends" immediately took leave of him upon receipt of the bad news. "You're the one in trouble," they said. "We don't want any part of it."

The second type said, "We'll accompany you to the palace. However, we can't go any further. Once we come to the palace gate we will not be allowed to go with you further. Sorry."

Thus, the man had to enter the palace grounds all alone. As he entered the gates, his heart heavy with worry and fear, to his surprise a man was standing at the entrance who said, "I know who you are and why you were summoned." The stranger continued, "Furthermore, I know exactly what needs to be said on your behalf before the king. Have no fear, I'll personally escort you into the king's chamber and speak in your behalf. You have nothing to worry about. "

That's what happens when we die, when we are suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to the palace of the King of Kings. The first set of friends who want no part of us are our material possessions: our money, our status, our political connections – none of it has any meaning over there. That's the first thing you realize when you reflect soberly upon your death: how insubstantial over there are the things you considered valuable in this world.

The next set of friends who accompany us to the gate are our family and friends. They arrange the funeral. They accompany the body to the grave. But they can go no further. They're not allowed to proceed into the palace gate with you. And so the person finds himself abandoned again.

There is, however, a stranger waiting at the palace entrance who promises to speak for us in the presence of the king. Who is this stranger we do not even recognize?

He is our good deeds.

The only possession you take with you when you're summoned before the King of Kings is the legacy of your life. A life of altruism, kindness, and spiritual yearning will speak for itself. A life spent in pursuit of the temporary material possessions that give one a false sense of security is reason to tremble when the day to present yourself before the King – whether that day be Rosh Hashana, the Day of Death or the "Great Day of Judgment"3 – arrives.


1. As detailed in Nachmanides' classic, Shaar HaGemul.
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2. See Soul Searching: Seeking Scientific Ground for the Jewish Tradition of an Afterlife, by the author, published by Targum Press. This article is an adaptation of one of the book's chapters.
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3. It has been asked: If a person is judged at his death as to his status in the World to Come what is the purpose of the Great Day of Judgment? One answer given is that after a person dies all the children, all the good and bad deeds and influences he had on others are "still in motion." Only at the end of history can the "final tally" be made, then, as to the impact a person had on the world in his or her life.
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