One of the foundations of our faith is the belief in the immortality of the soul, and in life after death.
If one believes in God's justice, one must also believe in the immortality of the soul. How can we otherwise reconcile the fact that many righteous individuals suffer in this life?
Just as the unborn child has many endowments which are of no use to it in the womb, but demonstrate that it will be born into a world where they will be used, so does a human being have many endowments which are of little value in this life, which indicate that man will be reborn into a higher dimension after death.
On the physical plane, man is indistinguishable from animals.
Details of immortality are not mentioned in the Torah since revelation only deals with the present world. The prophet therefore says when speaking of the World to Come, "Never has the ear heard it -- no eye has seen it -- other than God: That which He will do for those who hope in Him" (Isaiah 64:3). That is, not even the great prophets were allowed to envision the reward of the righteous in the Ultimate future.
Man shares physio-chemical life processes with animals, and on the physical plane is indistinguishable from them. We therefore speak of man having an "animal soul" (Nefesh HaBehamit) which is contained in the blood, i.e. in the physio-chemical life processes. Regarding this soul, the Torah says, "The life-force of the flesh is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11).
Since this animal soul is what draws man away from the spiritual, it is commonly called the "Evil Urge" (Yetzer Hara) in the Talmud.
In addition to his material self, however, man possesses a soul which is unique among all of God's creations. In describing the creation of Adam, the Torah says, "God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a soul-breath of life (Nishmat Chaim). Man [thus] became a living creature (Nefesh Chaya)" (Genesis 2:7).
The Torah is teaching us that the human soul came directly from God's innermost Essence in the same way that a breath issues forth from a person's lungs and chest cavity. The rest of creation, on the other hand, was created with speech, which is a lower level, for just as sound waves are generated by a person but do not contain any air from the lungs, so the rest of creation emanates from God's Power but not from His Essence.
The soul consists of three parts which are called by the Hebrew names, nefesh, ruach and neshama. The word neshama is a cognate of nesheema, which means literally "breath." Ruach means "wind." Nefesh comes from the root nafash, meaning "rest," as in the verse, "On the seventh day, [God] ceased work and rested (nafash)." (Exodus 31:17).
God's exhaling a soul can be compared to a glassblower forming a vessel. The breath (neshama) first leaves his lips, travels as a wind (ruach) and finally comes to rest (nefesh) in the vessel. Of these three levels of the soul, neshama is therefore the highest and closes to God, while nefesh is that aspect of the soul residing in the body. Ruach stands between the two, binding man to his spiritual Source. It is for this reason that Divine Inspiration is called Ruach HaKodesh in Hebrew.
The neshama is affected only by thought, the ruach by speech, and the nefesh by action.
Decomposition of the Body
All souls were created at the beginning of time, and are stored in a celestial treasury until the time of birth.
The soul has its first attachment to the body from the moment of conception, and remains with it until the moment of death. Death is thus often referred to in Hebrew as "departure of the soul" (Yetziat HaNeshama).
We are taught that immediately after death the soul is in a state of great confusion. It is therefore customary to stay near a dying person, so that he not die alone.
The disembodied soul is intensely aware of the physical surroundings of its body. This is especially true before the body is buried. The soul then literally mourns for its body for seven days. This is alluded to in the verse, "His soul mourns for him" (Job 14:22).
For the first 12 months after death, the soul hovers over the body.
For the first 12 months after death, until the body decomposes, the soul has no permanent resting place and thus experiences acute disorientation. It therefore hovers over the body. During this time, the soul is aware of and identifies with the decomposition of the body. The Talmud thus teaches us that "Worms are as painful to the dead as needles in the flesh of the living, as it is written (Job 14:22), 'His flesh grieves for him'." Most commentaries write that this refers to the psychological anguish of the soul in seeing its earthly habitation in a state of decay. The Kabbalists call this Chibut HaKever, "punishment of the grave."
We are taught that what happens to the body in the grave can be even more painful than Gehenom. This experience is not nearly as difficult for the righteous, however, since they never consider their worldly body overly important.
This is part of the judgment of the soul which occurs during the first year after death. Aside from this, the souls of the wicked are judged for 12 months after death, while others are judged for a lesser time.
It is for this reason that the Kaddish is said for the first 11 months in order not to depict him as an evildoer. For this same reason, when mentioning a parent's name during the first year after death, one should say, "May I be an atonement for his/her resting place" (Hareini Kapparat Mishkavo/a).
After death, the soul is cleansed in a spiritual fire.
The main judgment after death is in Gehenom, where the soul is cleansed in a spiritual fire, and purified so that it can receive its eternal reward.
The souls of the righteous are able to progress higher and higher in the spiritual dimension. Regarding this, the prophet was told, "If you go in My ways… then I will give you a place to move among [the angels] standing here" (Zechariah 3:7). God was showing the prophet a vision of stationary angels, and telling him that he would be able to move among them. While angels are bound to their particular plane, man can move and progress from level to level. This is also alluded to in the verse, "The dust returns to the dust as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Some authorities maintain that what the sages called Olam Haba (the "Future World" or "World to Come") refers to the spiritual dimension that the soul enters after leaving the body. The majority, however, consider Olam Haba as a completely new stage of earth life which will be ushered in only after the Messianic Age and the Resurrection of the Dead. According to these authorities, all souls pass into an intermediate dimension called Olam HaNeshamot ("World of Souls") after death. It is there that they are judged and then abide until the resurrection and final judgment.
From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.