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.

2 thoughts on “An Honest Look at Death and the Afterlife

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