Tag Archives: Death

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?


*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.

How Charity Can Save Your Life

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which is primarily concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, or holy tabernacle. God relays to Moses the instructions for properly constructing the tabernacle, and its purpose: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, so that I shall dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). God does not state that His presence will dwell in the sanctuary, but rather in the midst of the people. The sanctuary was only there to facilitate this process; to elevate the people so that they would be worthy and holy enough to have God in their presence.

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

To build the Mishkan, God commanded Moses to ask the people to donate the necessary materials. There were 7 categories of resources: precious metals of gold, silver, and copper; cloths that included dyed wools of blue, purple, and red, as well as linen and goat hair; leathers of rams and tachash (a species whose identity is no longer known, but speculated to be an antelope or rhinoceros); lumber of acacia wood; oils; spices; and precious stones. Over a dozen different precious stones were required – primarily for the High Priest’s breastplate – which we have discussed in the past. There were also 11 main herbs and spices in the Ketoret, the special incense used in priestly rituals, as we read daily in the text of the morning prayers.

Interestingly, in the command to bring the materials, God phrased it in such a way that it suggested a voluntary donation: “…and have them take for Me an offering [terumah], from each person whose heart is generous…” (Ex. 25:2). And the people did indeed give generously, so much so that Moses later had to tell them to stop their contributions! Moreover, the term used for this voluntary offering is terumah, which appears to share a root with the verb to elevate. Why was this offering considered an elevation?

Throughout Jewish texts we see descriptions of the great significance and power of donations and charity. One Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 10a) even states:

“Ten strong things were created in the world: mountains are strong, but iron cuts through them; iron is strong, but fire melts it; fire is strong, but water extinguishes it; water is strong, but clouds bear it; clouds are strong, but wind scatters them; wind is strong, but the body contains it; the body is strong, bur fear breaks it; fear is strong, but wine dispels it; wine is strong, but sleep assuages it; and stronger than all of these is death. But charity saves from death, as it is written [Proverbs 10:2], ‘And charity shall save from death.’”

Why is charity so praiseworthy, and so potentially life-saving?

Your Money and Your Soul

To be able to survive, one needs to earn money. Without money, one cannot afford the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Therefore, money is the tool that keeps one’s soul active in this world; otherwise, the soul departs the body. And to earn money, one must expend their time and energy through work (at least, in most cases). Since without the soul, the body is inanimate, it is ultimately the efforts of the soul that bring one an income. This establishes a fundamental soul-money cycle. In fact, our Sages point out that the gematria of the Torah word for money, shekel (שקל), has the same value (430) as the word for soul, nefesh (נפש). In this world, the two are very much interdependent.

Therefore, our spirit is deeply bound within our finances – which is why many people find it so hard to part with their money. (A famous Bukharian rhyming proverb illustrates this well: jonam geer, pulam ne geer – “take my soul, just don’t take my money!”) The important thing is that because of this intrinsic connection between spirit and money, by using our money for holy purposes, we are directly elevating our souls. Thus, by donating their wealth to produce the holy tabernacle (and by toiling in its construction), the Israelites received an incredible spiritual elevation, and merited to have God’s presence dwell in their midst. This is why the offering was called a terumah, an elevation.

The same is true for us today. If we only spend money on material goods, there is little benefit to our souls. However, when we invest spiritually in donations, charitable acts and charitable organizations, mitzvot, and the like, our money is elevated, and takes our souls with it. The old Jewish adage is pertinent: if a person has $10 and they donate $1, how much do they have left? While most people are quick to answer $9, the real answer is $1, for it is only that $1 mitzvah that the person takes with them to the next world, while whatever material possessions they have remain behind in this world.

The Kabbalah of Earning Money

Kabbalistically, the exile of the Jewish people was little more than an opportunity to gather the fallen spiritual sparks trapped all over the world. In the Kabbalistic model, God had originally created a perfect world – so much so that it shattered into tiny spiritual fragments scattered all over the material world. The purpose of the Jew, and of just about every mitzvah a Jew fulfills, is to free those trapped sparks from their kelipot, “shells”, and elevate them once more to a perfected state.

In the same way that reciting a blessing before consuming food is said to free whatever sparks lie within, so too does acquiring wealth and spending it on spiritual things elevate the cosmic sparks embedded within those riches. Perhaps this is the deeper reason why Jews have been so prosperous historically, wherever they may have been.

“Charity Saves from Death”

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

For the same reasons, King Solomon writes tzedaka tatzil mi’mavet, “charity saves from death”. One explanation goes like this: since our wealth is tied to our souls, shedding our wealth towards positive goals is like shedding our souls for a positive purpose. For whatever reason, a person may have a Heavenly decree upon them for their earthly life to come to an end, and their soul to be taken away. By giving charity, it is as if they are voluntary giving away a part of their soul, thus soothing the Heavenly decree, and prolonging their life.

Several years ago, I was driving down a major street and pulled in to the left lane to make a turn at the intersection. A panhandler was walking up and down along the dividing barrier. For a moment, I hesitated giving him money, since a group of the same panhandlers were working a number of intersections along the street, and I was starting to get a little annoyed with them. At the end, I rolled down my window and gave the guy some change, then drove on to make the left turn.

Suddenly, a massive dumpster truck was coming right towards me, unable to brake on the slippery roads. Despite my right-of-way, the truck plowed right through the intersection, and I had only an instant to slam on the brakes. He missed me by an inch. The first thought that came in to my head was that had I not stalled to give the panhandler some charity, I may have been minced meat. And immediately King Solomon’s words popped into my head: utzedaka tatzil mi’mavet…

An Honest Look at Death and the Afterlife

This week we once again read a double Torah portion, combining the parashot of Behar and Bechukotai to complete the book of Leviticus. The main themes of these parashas are the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, as well as God’s rewards and punishments for those who follow His ways and those who do not.

One interesting thing that the reader will note is that there is no mention of any kind of afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments that are listed are described in wholly physical terms: ample rains and abundant harvests, military victories and secure borders, good food and the feeling of God’s presence – and the opposite of these if the people are sinful. Why is it that the Torah does not mention any kind of reward and punishment in the afterlife? After all, we are accustomed to hearing that this world is nothing but a transient “hallway”, so to speak, while the next world is the real deal, where people receive what they deserve.

More puzzling is the fact that the Torah essentially never mentions the afterlife in explicit fashion. Everything appears to happen in this physical world. Yet, there is certainly a discussion of souls, and many spiritual entities. So, what is the real Torah conception of the afterlife?

The Garden of Eden

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

Typically, it is common to think that those who have passed away are now in the “Garden of Eden”, and this is indeed how Hebrew-speakers often refer to the dead, wishing them menucha (rest) in Gan Eden. But where exactly is this “Gan Eden”?

The Torah is quite clear on the fact that God created the Garden of Eden right here on Earth. The Genesis account describes God’s creation of the world, and all of its inhabitants, and concludes with the planting of a garden in Eden, where the first man and woman are placed. After their sin of consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, and continue their lives elsewhere on Earth. There is no mention anywhere in the Torah of a spiritual Garden of Eden located somewhere in the Heavens!

Gehinnom

Conversely, it is common for people to refer to an afterlife of damnation in a place called Gehinnom, typically translated as “hell”. Again, there is no explicit mention of a “hell” in Scripture. Gehinnom itself simply means “the Valley of Hinnom” (or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Gei Ben Hinnom) which is discussed in the Tanakh as a place right outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem. This is described as a place of sinners and idolaters, outcasts that were expelled from the Holy City. Once again, we see that the place usually thought of as hell is simply a physical place here on Earth.

As Above, So Below

By the times of the Talmudic period, the Jewish Sages had developed a unique cosmic worldview. They saw this material world as only a reflection of the spiritual world. What happened down here reflected, in some way, much greater cosmic events that were happening in the Heavens. Thus, just as there was a Jerusalem down here on Earth, there was a Jerusalem shel ma’alah, a “Jerusalem Above” (see, for example, Ta’anit 5a).

Similarly, just as there was a Garden of Eden – a place of utmost peace and pleasure – here on Earth, there must be a similar one above in the Heavens. And just as there was a Gehinnom – a deep valley of evil – here on Earth, there must be such a place in the Heavens, too.

It appears that the idea of righteous souls moving on to a Heavenly Gan Eden, or wicked souls to a Heavenly Gehinnom, came from this view on the nature of God’s universe.

The Big Afterlife Problem

However, this brings about a very large problem: both the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom are described in physical terms. But, after the body dies and decays, only the soul lives on, and how can the soul experience physical pleasures or pains? Additionally, the soul is described as pure and eternal. Why is it the soul that must suffer for the sins accrued by the body? And why should the soul suffer infinitely for a body that had only such a short, finite existence?

This problem was presented to Rabbi Yehuda haNasi by the Roman Emperor Antoninus nearly two millennia ago (Sanhedrin 91a-b). Rabbi Yehuda replied with a wonderful parable, and concluded that God brings the body and soul together again, and only then judges the person, and bestows upon them their due rewards or punishments.

So, if the body and soul go back together again after death, then there is no “Garden of Eden” or “Gehinnom” in the sense that we might commonly think.

Gate of Reincarnations

The only way that the body and soul can go back together again is if, following death, the soul returns into bodily form. This is the definition of reincarnation. Roughly 500 years ago, the great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Arizal, revealed many secrets of reincarnation, and these teachings were recorded by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, in a text called Sha’ar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnations).

This text describes reincarnations in great detail, and affirms that those who have lived sinful lives are reincarnated into new lives that are very challenging, and in this way have to make reparations for the mistakes of their past. The righteous, too, are reincarnated, since no one goes through life without making some mistakes, and even the most minute of these errors must be repaired. However, such people will enjoy much better lives, and be given the opportunity to fix those minor details from their past.

Of course, proper repentance can nullify any trials that a person must bear due to a mishap from a past life. Thus, free will ultimately trumps everything else. And what happens to those who have completely fulfilled their missions? In that case, there is indeed a “Garden of Eden” of sorts.

Resurrection of the Dead

One form of afterlife that Scriptures do mention explicitly is the Resurrection of the Dead. It is taught that sometime after the coming of Mashiach, all of the righteous souls will miraculously come back to life. They will then enjoy the world as it was always meant to be: a Garden of Eden.

Ultimately, this is the role of Mashiach: to return the world to that perfect, primordial state. It is interesting to note how the figure responsible for driving mankind out of the Garden was the Serpent, Nachash (נחש) in Hebrew, a word which has a numerical value of 358; and the figure responsible for returning mankind to the Garden is Mashiach (משיח), a word which also has a gematria of 358 – measure for measure.

Thus, the final step for each soul, once its mission is complete, is to be resurrected in the restored Garden of Eden, right here in a new Earth, following the arrival of Mashiach.

Back to Bechukotai

We can now understand why Bechukotai does not speak of any spiritual rewards or punishments in an afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments are right here in this world, where body and soul unite as one, as Rabbi Yehuda told Antoninus. We can now also see why no “Heaven” or “Hell” is ever explicitly mentioned in Scripture, and why we never even mention them in our prayers. The Amidah prayer recited thrice daily makes no reference to souls in some Heavenly realm, but does have a blessing for techiyat ha’metim, the Resurrection of the Dead in a future, perfected world.

May we merit to see it speedily and in our days.

The Hidden History of Lag B’Omer

This week’s Torah reading is Emor, which begins with a continuation of various priestly and Temple-related laws. The parasha then lists all of the Biblical holidays, starting with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinically-instituted, having occurred long after the events of the Torah were complete (although it is important to note that the Torah does hint to those future events, too).

It is here in this week’s parasha that we are also commanded to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as Sefirat HaOmer (Click Here to read about its spiritual significance). There are a number of important dates that fall during the Sefirat HaOmer period. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of the Omer” (Lag, ל”ג is the Hebrew designation for the number 33), celebrated this past Wednesday evening and Thursday. This festive holiday is marked with lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, and taking a break from the usual mourning customs of the Omer period.Bonfire

The basic story of Lag B’Omer is that during the first 32 days of the Omer Period nearly two thousand years ago, a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. All of his students died, hence the mourning customs still observed today to commemorate that tragic event. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why the mourning rituals are now lifted.

The big question is: why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished with a plague? What had they done to deserve this? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) says that apparently these 24,000 students failed to love and respect one another. However, this immediately begs a whole bunch of other questions.

First of all, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that the greatest principle of Torah is to love your fellow (TY Nedarim 9:4). Could it really be that Rabbi Akiva’s own students failed to uphold their master’s central teaching? And if it really was the case that these students didn’t love or respect each other, then they really weren’t very righteous people, so why are we so fervently mourning their deaths? Throughout history, there have been much greater numbers of much greater people who have perished, yet we do not mourn for such a lengthy period of time for any of them!

What’s Really Going On?

The Talmud (TY Ta’anit 24b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was a central supporter of Shimon Bar Kochva during the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), also known as the Third Roman-Jewish War. Bar Kochva was initially very successful against the Romans, and it seemed like the Jews would be able to throw off the yoke of the Roman authorities, and rebuild the Temple (after it was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE). Not surprisingly, Rabbi Akiva went so far as to declare Bar Kochva as the Messiah! After all, the major role of Mashiach is to secure Israel’s borders, end the exile, and rebuild the Temple – which Bar Kochva seemed to be doing.

Unfortunately, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head, and it seems that he became a violent dictator, even killing his own uncle, Rabbi Eleazar haModa’i. Soon, his armies fell to the Romans, who brutally quashed the rebellion. The Romans went on a killing spree, massacring countless people in Judea. One of their victims was Rabbi Akiva himself, who was tortured to death with iron combs (Berachot 61b).

It isn’t hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed in a similar fashion, during this tragic time period. The “plague” that took their lives was the Romans, and the war ended on Lag B’Omer. Indeed, one explanation for why we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer is to commemorate the Bar Kochva war, when the Jewish guerilla warriors would light signal fires to each other. It may also explain why there is a custom to this day to play with bows and arrows – implements of war.

So why would Jewish texts say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague? It wasn’t uncommon in those days for the secular authorities to censor various texts. Perhaps the Romans, in a propaganda effort, forbid the Jews from publicly speaking about the real reasons for the deaths of the 24,000. The Rabbis encoded the real history through indirect means: bonfires, bows and arrows, etc.

Many scholars of the past, both religious and secular, have explored this possibility in depth, including Nachman Krochmal, Eliezer Levi, and Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum.

Rashbi and Kabbalah

Ultimately, the story ends with a small number of Rabbi Akiva’s students – some say five, others a little more – surviving “the plague”, and going on to re-establish Judaism, saving it from extinction. One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi). The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is explicit in telling us that he hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, together with his son, surviving off of a carob tree. This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans, and not in a plague.

It was Rabbi Shimon who was first to publicly reveal the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It is said that he did this to his own students on the day of his death – which was the 18th of the month of Iyar, and the 33rd day of the Omer. The central book of Kabbalah, The Zohar, which was first published sometime in the 13th century, is believed to have originated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is directly based on those teachings that he revealed. According to tradition, those Kabbalistic teachings were so holy and powerful that when Rabbi Shimon expounded on them on that day of his death, the very house in which he and his students were in appeared to be engulfed in flames. This is cited as another reason for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Shimon told his students not to mourn his death, for it was a happy occasion: the deepest of spiritual and mystical secrets were now revealed, and would help to preserve the Jewish religion and nation for centuries to come.