Are you a body, or a body and a soul? Most people would answer, "I'm a body and a soul." But do we mean it? Do we live our lives and make decisions as if each of us is not just a body, but a body and a soul?
At certain times in our lives we reconnect with our souls. A wedding is a soul experience for the bride and groom, a new beginning through the spiritual union under the chuppah, the wedding canopy.
For many, going to Israel is a life-altering experience of connecting with the land, the people, and the legacy that is part of every Jew.
The birth of a child is a soul-stirring moment. We witness the miracle of creation, the wonder of a new life, and we feel the awesome responsibility of this priceless gift to guide through life.
On a journey to the countryside as we look up to a star-filled sky, we can truly see forever. A feeling of transcendence overtakes us.
Death itself puts us in touch with our souls. What am I living for?
A near-death experience can be a dramatic soul encounter. People do not recover from such experiences without realizing that they have been given another chance. Afterward, each new day holds new meaning, and even casual relationships turn precious.
Death itself puts us in touch with our souls. No one stands at a funeral and thinks about the menu for dinner that night. Everyone thinks, "What is life all about, anyway?" "What am I living for?" "Is there something beyond this world?"
We know that we are souls. When we look into the eyes of someone we love, we do not see random molecules thrown together. We love the essence of that person, and that essence is what we call a neshama, a soul.
God formed man out of dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath (soul) of life. (Genesis 2:7)
The soul is eternal, although the body's existence is temporary. When God decides a person's time on this earth has ended, He takes back the soul, and the body goes back to the earth, completing the cycle of creation ("dust to dust"). For, in the beginning, the first person, Adam, was created from the dust of the ground.
The essence of our loved ones, the goodness and special qualities that they possessed, the part of them that made noble choices in life, performed good deeds, and touched the lives of others – their neshama – goes on to a world of infinite pleasure. In that world, physical sufferings do not exist, and souls bask in the light of their Creator, enjoying the rewards for all that they did here on earth.
But what kinds of choices and deeds count? Those of people who saved the lives of others, who led armies to victory, who discovered medical cures? Yes, those people enjoy a place in the World to Come, but so do those who led simpler lives, who performed quiet acts of kindness and made a difference to those around them. Perhaps what they did wasn't front-page news, but small acts have merit too and can mean an eternity of the deepest pleasures in the World to Come.
What we are experiencing now is called Olam Hazeh ("This World"), while the next world is referred to as Olam Haba ("The World to Come"). We are all familiar with what happens here, but what goes on in Olam Haba?
Of course no one in Jewish history ever died and came back to tell us what happens in the world beyond. Yet we are assured there is another existence. Maimonides, the 12th century scholar, includes this belief in his "Thirteen Principles of Faith." Our oral tradition speaks about it at length, and Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is also replete with wisdom about the hereafter
Olam Haba, Heaven, is more easily understood when compared to a theater. Our Sages state that every Jew has a portion in the World to Come. This means that a seat in the theater has been reserved for each person's soul. But as in any theater, some seats are better than others. If God is "center stage," some souls will enjoy seats in the front row center section, others will sit in the balcony, and some will have obstructed views. But everyone will have a place. What seats we are assigned are based on the choices we make and the deeds that we do in Olam Hazeh, this world.
In the next world, we'll be surprised who gets the best seats.
We are told that we will be surprised who gets the best seats. We will look down and say, "What are they doing there? They weren't so great!" "What are they doing up front? They didn't accomplish very much!"
And God will answer and say, "They are there because they listened to My voice."
We make a mistake when we think that only those who seem great, honored and accomplished will merit a place before God. Each person is judged individually, and we don't know what one mitzvah, one act of kindness, will make the difference when God reviews a person's life.
Listening to God does not only mean obeying the laws of what and what not to do. Hearing His voice means that we see that life isn't ruled by coincidence, that we realize that events take place for a reason, and we act accordingly. We may not know the Torah backward or forward, but if we have a relationship with our Creator, it can be worth a front row seat in eternity.
Our Sages say that if we took all of our life's pleasures, every one of them, and all the pleasures of everyone in this world, and brought them all together, the total wouldn't be worth even one second in the World to Come, the pleasure of being close to God.
Now, it may not have been uppermost on our minds in this world, but we know that if you were called to someone's home for a meeting, and following the meeting the host announced that God's Presence was about to arrive and wanted to communicate with you, you wouldn't say, "Well, sorry, it's getting late and I have to get up early tomorrow." You would be scared out of your mind, but there is nothing more important or more desirable than going before God, Creator of heaven and earth.
We can't imagine passive pleasure. For us pleasure is active. We go away on vacation. We ask for a raise and get it. We eat a big helping of the flavor of the month. Something happens and we feel pleasure. So how can sitting in one place be so overwhelmingly pleasurable? Because it is an earned pleasure – what we did in our lifetime on earth has yielded this result.
In Olam Haba we are sitting before God, Who created us. He knows us inside and out. Every moment here on earth is His gift to us. He loves us more than our parents love us, more than we ever love or ever will love our children. And He calls us back to Him.
Of course people are not perfect and we all make mistakes, but those errors in judgment do not erase our good deeds. If we light candles on Friday night and then go to a movie, God does not look down and say, "Candles. Movie. We're back to square one." The act of lighting candles, the bringing in of the Sabbath, is eternal. Nothing can take it away. It is the same with every positive effort we make in life.
Of course we all make bad decisions sometimes, and some acts we deeply regret. What should we do about them? Ideally, we should take care of our mistakes here in this life. If we have wronged someone, we should make peace. If we are letting bad habits or character hold us back, we should work on breaking free and return to being the person we know we can be.
When our souls leave this world and go before God, we give an accounting, and a certain judgment takes place. Judgment is not something we look forward to. Who wants to be judged? But this is not just any judge. This is God, our Father in Heaven. A human judge might be biased. But this is our Creator, who gave us life and everything that happens in our lives. His judgment of us comes from love, and anything that derives from love is for our good.
The decisions that we make count for something – not just at the moment, but forever.
Furthermore, His judgment means that our judgments count. Life is not random; it has meaning and purpose. The decisions that we make in our lives count for something, and not just at the moment, but forever. The ultimate reward and punishment happen, but only in Olam Haba, the next world, not here in Olam Hazeh, this world.
Each year on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, God judges us. He looks at the deeds and choices that we made during the year and decides what our next year will be like – based on our efforts to correct our mistakes and the decisions that we made in our lives. But at the time of death, after the burial, we go before God Who will judge us not just on one year, but on our entire lives.
Highway to Hell
The soul can go to one of two places: Heaven, which we have discussed, or Gehenom, Hell.
We believe in Hell? It may be surprising, perhaps, but yes, we do. Why is it a surprise? Often it is a subject not brought up in Hebrew school or in the synagogues. But also the reality is that we grow up in a Christian world, where as youngsters we understand that anything Christian is not ours. And therefore, if Christians believe in Heaven and Hell, then I guess we don't.
But we do. Yet the Jewish understanding of Heaven and Hell differs from what we may hear from other religions.
Hell is a place help us take care of those mistakes we didn't correct in this world.
Hell is a place God created to help us take care of the mistakes we didn't correct in this world. It is called Gehenom. But don't be afraid. It's not a place of devils and pitchforks, and it's not forever. If it is God's judgment that a person has to enter Gehenom, the maximum amount of time spent there would be one Jewish year. A person can be there a split second, an entire Jewish year, or somewhere in between. That is the reason that we say Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, for 11 months. We assume that our loved ones would never be there an entire year. Ideally, we want to by-pass it altogether.
A great rabbi was scheduled to speak on the subject of the next world at an "Executive Lunch and Learn" series in downtown Toronto. My husband picked him up at the airport, and on the way downtown asked him to "go easy on Gehenom" with the primarily non-religious audience. He was afraid the rabbi would scare them.
The rabbi turned to my husband and asked, "Do you have hospitals here in Toronto?"
"Yes," he answered, confused.
"And," continued the rabbi, "are these world class hospitals?"
"Yes," answered my husband again.
"Would you ever want to check into these hospitals?"
"No," said my husband.
"But if you need to, aren't you glad they're there?"
The rabbi explained that Gehenom is a hospital for the soul. Going there will be painful. But it's from God's kindness, His mercy, and His love that such a place exists. We wouldn't want to check in even for a minute, but if we have to, we know it's for our good, and we hope our stay will be as short as possible.
The way to avoid Gehenom altogether is to take care of our mistakes here. This is not an easy task, but making the supreme effort in this world will ultimately avoid a much greater pain in the next.
Of Blessed Memory
Whether we are able to by-pass it, or we have to spend some time in Gehenom, eventually we are able to enter the theater of Olam Haba. If we arrive and each of us is assigned a seat, does that mean we are there for eternity and that our share of pleasure is limited to our particular view? No. The people we have left on earth can increase our share in the World to Come, and enable us to earn better seating.
How does this happen? In memory of loved ones people often give charity, name babies, learn Torah in their merit, and so on. These are not just good deeds. These are acts we do in this world that have everlasting spiritual ramifications.
When we do something in someone's memory, we are saying:
Because of this person that I loved, l am living my life differently. He may be gone, but he is not forgotten. He continues to be a source of inspiration in my life. His life mattered, and his legacy will continue to make a difference.
What should you do in memory of a loved one?
My husband tells people to take a 30-day period, ideally the first 30 days after the funeral, which is called the shloshim, and do something concrete in memory of the departed. For some it could be placing a coin in a tzedakah (charity) box each day and reciting a simple prayer.
Most people, after experiencing such a tremendous loss, feel a great need to do something to honor the departed. Because of the concept of Olam Haba, doing something will not only bring you comfort, but also add to the merit of the one that you have lost.
Souls in the next world have awareness. They know what goes on here. By choosing to honor them, you are making an impact far greater than you will ever know.
Excerpted from "Remember My Soul." This article is featured in Aish.com's book: Heaven on Earth. Buy it now!