Life, Death and the Big Picture
- Unlike every other portion of this website, this section is long. It will probably take you ten minutes to read, and longer if you are in a reflective mood. If you are looking for a more extensive understanding of how Judaism understands life, death and the afterlife, then this essay is for you. If you don’t have the time, that’s fine, there is a lot more information on the site that will take a lot less time to digest.
The Jewish understanding of death is that it is part of life, and not even the last part, just a part. Though we do not fully understand what happens after death, to understand it at all, we need to look at death in the context of the bigger picture in which it resides: life. This broader context begins with an understanding of G-d, looks at people and the enterprise of living in a G-d created environment and finally understands death as one aspect of that complete picture. So let’s begin with a brief look at G-d.
God: Artist of the bigger picture
At the heart of Judaism, is G-d. G-d is the Creator and source of absolutely everything that ever has, or ever will exist. God is the ultimate theory of everything. He is what everything is all about. In Jewish thought, though we can’t know God directly and can’t even begin to fathom anything of His essence, we can know a bit about God. The following ar e a few things we know about God. Together, they form the landscape upon which life is lived and death is understood.
The classical Jewish understanding of creation is not that it was a one time event followed by the pushing of a cosmic auto-pilot button, but rather that creation is an ongoing, ever present phenomenon.
1) God is absolute:That God’s being is absolute means that He is fully complete in and of Himself; he lacks nothing and needs nothing. God also has no restrictions or limitations and as such, nothing can exist “outside” of or independent of Him. Additionally, His existence is unchanging. God never becomes “more” or “less” in any way; He is never different.
2) God is fundamentally independent: Close your eyes and imagine that you are standing in a broad, rolling meadow. Fresh spring grass, daisies, and buttercups gently sway in the breeze. A cloudless french blue sky stretches on forever, and a young boy is running through the meadow clutching a string that stretches high up to a soaring kite.
Now open your eyes: It’s time to turn off your imagination and return to wherever you are, which probably isn’t the middle of a meadow.
Were that meadow and that boy real, or were they just the stuff of your imagination? The answer is both. On the one hand there was some reality to that meadow, so much so that it could actually produce the feeling of being there. At the same time, it was just your imagination, and whatever reality it had was completely dependent on you. As long as you were choosing to focus your mind on that little boy in the meadow, his kite would fly; however, the moment you focused elsewhere, he, his kite, and the whole meadow would simply cease to exist. In a sense, this is a description of the relationship of our existence to God’s.
The classical Jewish understanding of creation is not that it was a one time event followed by the pushing of a cosmic auto-pilot button, but rather that creation is an ongoing, ever present phenomenon. The consequence of an ongoing renewal of creation is that there are two types of existence, one that is wholly independent and one that is utterly dependent. Want to guess which one is God and which is us? God’s independence means that if everything ceased to exist—us, our energy bars, the farthest star in the farthest galaxy and even time itself—their lack of existence would in no way affect God. The Creator is fully complete, self-sufficient, and independent from His creation.
As for us creatures, that’s a different story. We are utterly dependent. The implication is that since God is “creating” every moment again and again, then all of reality is continually and absolutely dependent on God’s constant renewal of existence.
3) God is One : If all of Judaism could be distilled into one statement it would be the Shema: “Listen, O’ Israel, God our Lord; God is One.” Though this statement includes the revolutionary monotheistic belief in just one God, it also contains many more layers of meaning. The shema is a statement about the absolute unity—the oneness—of God’s being. The oneness of God means that all that exists, all elements, forces and laws of nature are an expression of a greater, transcendent Unity that is the source of their existence as well as the source of any power or influence they seem to exert. God wills everything to exist, and His Will is the One hand in every glove.
4) God is a Giver:One thing we know for sure about creation is that it doesn’t exist for God. Since God is wholly complete and lacks nothing, it can’t be that His act of creation was motivated by a need, because a need implies a lack and He has no lackings. Creation, then, is not for the Creator, rather it is for the creature. The creation and maintenance of all existence is an act motivated, so to speak, only by pure benevolence. God’s ongoing acts of creation are ongoing acts of altruism. God’s “relationship,” therefore, to His creation is one in which He is the giver par excellence, and we, the creatures, are the receivers of what it is that God has to offer. And what is it that God has to offer? The only thing that truly exists—Himself.
Man: Recipient of the ultimate relationship
Prior to creation, God was perfectly complete and lacked nothing. This being the case, it can’t be that He needed to create, because a need implies a lack, and He had, and still has, no lackings whatsoever. It is for this reason that Judaism has always understood that creation is for us. It is we who gain or benefit from the fact of our existence, not God. Consider the following:“My being and my heart all but leave me in their longing for you; the deepest part of me yearns, that my lot in life be God: forever. Those who are distant from you become lost …. And I, the only thing I call good is my closeness to You.”
David, 7th century BCE scholar, musician, giant slayer, and king of Israel
“The human being was not created for any purpose other than to have the pleasure of God Himself and to savor the delight of His presence; for this is not only the greatest pleasure available but the essence of all true pleasure that can be experienced.”
Rabbi Moshe C. Luzzato, 18th century philosopher and mystic 10
Creation is for us. It’s for our good, and the greatest possible good is God. It’s for our pleasure, and the greatest possible pleasure is God. This is what is implied when we say that God’s “relationship” to us is one in which He is the giver par excellence and we, His creations, have the capacity to receive that which God has to offer. We have the potential to achieve closeness to God; closeness in the sense that two friends can be “close,” and a husband and a wife can share a closeness that defies description and transcends great physical distance. We call this closeness a relationship.
That creation is for us means that we have the potential to be intimately connected to our Creator—to God—through a relationship.
The soul, the body and the purpose of life
Human beings are both fundamentally earthy, physical beings as well as inherently spiritual. Think about it: Do you remember experiencing the tension between what you want to do and what you feel like doing? Do you remember wanting to get up extra early to help your spouse, or stay up late to help a friend, while at the same time feeling like sleeping instead? That tension between what you want to do and what you feel like doing is the tension between the body and the soul. The soul wants you to do what’s right; to be idealistic, to go out of your way to help others, to reach for God, and to strive for depth and meaning in life. The body, on the other hand, would far prefer a life of long weekends, breakfast in bed and lazy days at the beach.
Judaism understands the body-soul tension as being the pivotal challenge of life. Will our lives be primarily soul directed, or body directed? Is it the interests and inclinations of our physicality that will rule the day, or the interests, goals and yearnings of the soul that will rule? King Solomon said: “It is better to rule over oneself than to rule over a city.” (Proverbs 17:32) This means that while many strive to be the master over others, the true test of human greatness is whether we can master ourselves. In Judaism, life is about striving and choosing to be a person whose direction in life is determined by the soul. Our mission on earth is to live a soul-driven life. The body and the delights of the physical world are understood to be a means to fuel that mission, not as an end in themselves.
Let’s see how the Torah puts it.
“And God formed the human from the dust of the earth and he breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.” (Genesis 2:7)
This verse teaches us that people are physical as well as spiritual beings. The dust of the earth is the body; the outer, apparent and physical dimension. The soul of life is the inner world—the light of God—concealed within each and every one of us.
To the Jewish mind, life is about discerning, discovering, appreciating, embracing and choosing the spiritual essence that lies just beneath the surface of all things physical. In fact, all of Jewish life is one grand system for revealing and liberating the latent spirituality inherent in every person, and in all of life. In Judaism, when one lives a soul-driven life, a life defined by a relationship with God, then he not only masters, refines and elevates his own physicality but also unleashes the spiritual potential that is hidden within all of creation.
We are all the dust of the future
Now here’s a happy thought for you: we all live, we all die, and eventually we are all reduced to dust. Sooner or later, who we were, how we lived, and what we accomplished will be simply and totally forgotten. Eventually nothing whatsoever will remain of us, not even the whisper of a faint memory.
If the answer to the question “What happens after you die?” is ‘Nothing,’ then what does that say about life? Think about it. If what’s left of us after death is nothingness—no existence, awareness, consciousness, or memories—not even the memories that others have of us, then what does this tell us about our lives and accomplishments? Even if we are the creators of a Mona Lisa, a masterpiece, and even if this masterpiece is in the form of a beautiful family, a classic film, or the founding of a soup kitchen that feeds thousands of hungry people, in the end won’t all of our accomplishments be reduced to nothing but faceless dust? And if it’s true that our planet has many hundreds of millions of years to go until the big bang ends in a big crunch, and if it’s also true that the planet we inhabit is less in proportion to the universe than a grain of sand is to all the beaches on earth, then doesn’t this reduce all of us—our births and deaths, our lives, efforts, accomplishments, and legacies—to being no more than a bit of dust that was born, lived, died, and forgotten in the blink of an eye? Does anything in life really matter—how much meaning can there be to anything in life—if all we are is random bits of dust whose meanderings will quickly and inevitably be lost and forgotten for all eternity?
Rosh Hashanah: The anti-dust
Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that marks the Jewish New Year, is known as the Day of Judgment. This is the day when God’s court is in session, so to speak, and He judges the deeds and lives of all people.
Tell me, do you not detest being in the presence of a judgmental person? Is there nothing more unsettling than knowing that your actions are being scrutinized by others? When it comes to God, just the opposite is true. That God judges us is the surest sign that there exists a meaningful relationship between the Designer and Creator of the universe and His creations—each and every one of us. The judgment of Rosh Hashanah says emphatically that who we are, what we do and achieve, the efforts that we make—all of this—matters to God Himself. Divine judgment is the antithesis of meaningless dust. While Jews have always approached Rosh Hashanah with the utmost seriousness, it is also a festival, a day for celebrating our relationship with God in light of the awareness that He cares deeply about how things are going.
If you want to destroy a child, don’t beat her, ignore her. To a child, the most devastating response to how she acts is no response at all. A parent who doesn’t pay attention to a report card, to the choice of friends or to a child’s activity on the Web is a parent who is sending a clear and most destructive message—I’m not interested. Disinterest is the opposite of relationship.
The message that Rosh Hashanah sends, and the message that we celebrate, is this: my relationship with God is real, my choices and their consequences are of paramount importance, and God cares about me because I matter. Does that sound like meaningless dust to you?
More to life than heaven and hell
The deepest meaning of life is that we were created with the potential for a relationship with our Creator. Jewish tradition and teaching has always maintained that this relationship outlives the life of the body. So does this mean that Judaism believes in heaven and hell and the eternal dichotomy between eternal bliss and the flames of eternal damnation? The answer is yes, sort of, but not exactly. What Judaism believes in is a relationship. In the Jewish way of thinking, all reward and punishment is in terms of depth versus superficiality in our relationship with God. It’s either a close relationship, or it isn’t.
So you mean heaven is a really great relationship and hell is a lousy, dysfunctional one? Sort of, but it’s a bit more involved than that. The relationship that is inherent in the act of Creation is a relationship that is as enduring as the Creator Himself; yet, like a marriage, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to develop and deepen the relationship. There is a process involved, a journey—from getting to know one another, to engagement, to the marriage itself, and beyond. The relationship between a person and his Creator also takes time and effort. The road to achieving a relationship with God is a process that begins with life and continues along a continuum that looks like this—
Freewill and relationship
The essence of life lies in existence of free will and the dynamic arena in which freewill is operative is found in the tension between the body and the soul. When the Torah (Bible) says that man was created “in the image of God,” it’s talking about freewill. As God is independent and creative, so we have the potential to live freely, to make our own choices, and ultimately to create our own lives. The world and every individual within it is a masterpiece in waiting. It is the great challenge and opportunity inherent in free will that separates us from Dalmatians. The Dalmatian doesn’t weigh options and make choices, it simply does what it does because that’s the way it was programmed. But people are different. We make choices—to be callous or to comfort, to share or to withhold, to be kind or cruel, destructive or life giving. Ultimately, we choose to face reality or to hide from it, to respond and relate to God, or to ignore Him. But there is a problem: life is difficult.
Life is difficult and uncomfortable and painful and frustrating and unsettling and full of disappointment and suffering. So often all that we are reaching for in life seems to be dangling just beyond our reach. So we have a sense, there must be more, life must be part of a continuum.
The life that we experience in this physical existence is one that is custom designed and perfectly balanced for the operation of our free will. From the time we are born until our last day on earth, we live in a dimension that allows us to achieve the greatest possible connection to God through sheer will, effort, striving, and having as little as possible handed to us for nothing—because what is unearned is unappreciated, and the connection, the relationship, just isn’t there. It is the inescapable need for us to freely choose and earn the closeness that necessitates an environment that is both supportive and fiercely oppositional.
Life in the physical world is the beginning of the process of relationship. However, it is more than just one of many steps in the process; it is the most pivotal aspect of the entire process. It is only while we are alive in the blended form of physical and spiritual, in a world that is simultaneously supportive and oppositional, that we can make real choices that have genuine consequences. And it is these choices that set the stage for the future of the relationship. Once we die and are divested of our free will, once our being is no longer conflicted and our environment no longer a source of dissonance, then all we can do is live with the consequences of our choices, because choice itself will no longer exist.
Death: Separation of body and soul
Death is far more than the cessation of vital physical and chemical functions. Death is the separation of the body from the soul and the conclusion of our existence as free-willed beings. It is a point along the continuum of existence. To fully appreciate the Jewish understanding of what comes after death, it will be helpful to consider the following dialogue recorded in the Talmud:
“The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once asked Rabbi Judah the Prince [the pre-eminent scholar of his day], ‘Is it not true that the body and the soul can conspire to exempt one another from any type of heavenly judgment? It would work like this: The body [when it is called in for judgment] will say, “Just look at me. Ever since death I have just been lying there like a helpless stone. Clearly, the only reason I was ever involved in any wrongdoing was because the soul gave me the ability to act as I did; so if anyone should be held accountable, it’s the soul.” However, the soul will then reply, “Look at me. Ever since I have been separated from the body I have been flying like a bird above the surface of the world—I never really had any interest in the physical world. It was the body that lead us to do the things we did.”’
“Rabbi Judah’s reply was in the form of a parable. ‘Marcus my friend, consider the following analogy:
‘Once there was a king who had a magnificent orchard full of the most delectable and valuable figs. To protect his orchard, the king hired two guards, one who was blind and another who was a cripple. One day, the cripple said to the blind man, “These are truly beautiful figs, why don’t you put me on your shoulders and I will direct you so that we can pick and enjoy some figs.” And that is just what they did. Later, when the king returned and saw what had happened, he demanded to know where his figs had gone. At that point the cripple said, “I couldn’t have taken them, I can’t even walk.” And the blind man said, “I can’t see, how could I have possibly taken the figs?”
‘So what was the king’s response? He took the cripple, sat him on the shoulders of the blind man and proclaimed—‘Now what do you have to say for yourselves?”’”
This is a story about the granddaddy of all Rosh Hashanahs. It’s about final judgment and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions.
While a post death day of reckoning may conjure up hair-raising visions worthy of Dante himself, Jews have always understood this parable to be saying something fundamental about the actualization of the relationship between people and God. It says that God doesn’t forget about us after we die; it says that God continues to care about us after we die, and most importantly, it says that God continues to relate to us after we die. In other words, just as the judgment of Rosh Hashanah implies concern and caring—a relationship—so too God’s future day of judgment, His reaction to the totality of our lives, implies an intimate relationship that transcends death.
So does this mean that Judaism actually believes in some kind of life after death, that the soul and the body have continued existence and awareness even after they have been separated by death? That’s right, and if you think about it, the reality couldn’t be different.
Resurrection of the dead
The free-willed being who lives, and breathes, and confronts all the challenges of forging a relationship with the Creator is a unique being comprised of physical and spiritual. That’s what we human beings are, body and soul. As such, who is it that is struggling, and choosing and trying to create a relationship with the Creator? Is it the body or the soul? Is it neither, or both? The Jewish understanding is that it is both. It is the totality of the human being, which is body and soul together that has a relationship with God. Thus, the achievement of the ultimate closeness to God can only be in terms of the complete human being—body and soul together.
It is for this reason that Judaism sees the ultimate reunification of the body and the soul as the only way that the purpose of existence can be fulfilled. We are the ones whom God created with the potential to have the supreme pleasure of a relationship with Him, and we are a soul and a body.
The relationship continuum that begins with birth and then travels through life and death culminates in the future state of existence known as techiyat ha’meitim, resurrection of the dead. This is a state of being that is unlike anything we can possibly imagine. We live in a world of striving and becoming. That future world is one of ultimate achievement and actualization. While in some way these two worldly places have something in common, in essence they are utterly different. Our sages call this future state of being, olam haba, “the world to come,” and they compare it to the Sabbath, the day of rest.
The Talmud says that, “One who makes the effort to prepare for the Sabbath will have something to eat on the Sabbath.” It also says, “The Sabbath is a slight approximation of olam haba, the world to come.” In these statements, the Talmudic sages are telling us that there is a dimension to the Sabbath that goes far beyond its being a day of rest. It’s a taste, a whiff of the ultimate. According to Jewish law, one must refrain from all forms of creative labor on the Sabbath. Additionally, there is another incredible Talmudic statement stating that one is obligated to “view all of one’s work and unfinished projects as if they had already been completed.” So what the weekly experience of the Sabbath creates is an encounter with the ultimate, final state of being—a time when the relationship is no longer being formed and nurtured but has finally reached its fullest fruition.
Between death and resurrection—a waiting room?
While Jewish tradition does discuss what takes place after death and prior to the resurrection, the truth is, since it is a state of existence unlike any we can relate to, we can only speak about it in general and somewhat vague terms.
In general, our tradition has it that what takes place after death is a purification process that readies the body and the soul for their eventual reunification. The goal of this process is to enable them, together, to partake of the relationship they created prior to death in “this world”—olam ha’zeh. This purification process works something like this:
Imagine a fictitious woman named Joyce Green who was successful in business and who, in 1987 at the age of thirty-eight, became CEO of the Sony Corporation. Every day, she was either at the office or traveling on behalf of the company. For the rest of her life she did nothing other than grow the corporation. Eventually legions of young executives would emulate what became known as The Green Way. In short, everyone knew what Forbes proclaimed, “Joyce Green is Sony.” Then, one day, Joyce’s soul slipped out of her body and colleagues around the world were deeply saddened.
Now let’s think about this particular body and soul. While they were partnered together in the form of Joyce Green, they were constantly at odds with one another. Joyce’s soul felt that it had the potential to build something great, something that could touch the lives of millions of people, and Joyce was a woman of vision and drive and talent. She really could have made a difference in this world, but then there was Joyce’s body. It wasn’t quite as ambitious as Joyce’s soul. It had other interests and other goals. It wanted Joyce to pursue achievements that weren’t quite as difficult as her soul had in mind. And while Joyce certainly did do a number of wonderful things in her lifetime, in the overall scheme of things, it was her body that called the most important shots. In the end, when the world asked, “Who was Joyce Green?” the answer was “Joyce Green was the Sony Corporation.”
So after the funeral, after all the tributes had been fondly spoken, and after a movie based on her life won an Oscar, what was left of her? Well, what was left was her body and soul, and the two of them were headed in different directions.
After death, the soul returns to a purely spiritual dimension where it awaits a time when it can finally achieve all it was meant to accomplish. The body, on the other hand, returns to where it came from—the dust of the earth. While the soul basks in the spiritual world, the body goes through a difficult purification process. When confronting what were often at best trivial, and at worst immoral pursuits and “achievements,” during it’s pre-death existence. In Joyce’s case, the body realizes that what Joyce had become in life was a corporation, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it also wasn’t anywhere near what Joyce could have become. For other people, their bodily urges may have led them down a much darker road. When separated from the soul, the body “realizes” the shallow and fleeting nature of everything it fought so hard for in life. Everything that it had relentlessly pushed for is now gone. It could never be touched, never be sensed, nor experienced again. As the body experiences an awareness of its own decay, it simultaneously realizes that everything it had ever pursued was also doomed to decay, and that’s painful. In all cases, to one degree or another, those searing moments of realization that one missed an irretrievable opportunity—truly the opportunity of a lifetime—are part of the purification process that takes place after death.
According to Jewish tradition, this purification process lasts for, at most, twelve months. Aft-er that, the soul continues to reside in a sort of a spiritual retreat center where it waits for the day when it will be reunited with its old friend and finally be able to fully achieve what it had been lobbying for all along. Unfortunately, however, the ultimate potential, the depth of closeness to God that that the reunited body and soul will later experience, will ultimately be defined by the way it had originally lived. In the end, the new and improved Joyce Green will experience a degree of pleasure, connection and closeness to God that is beyond anything we can imagine. It will be a spiritual existence unlike anything we know of, yet it won’t be quite what it could have been.