What Exactly is the Afterlife and What Happens There?
One of the basic tenets of Judaism is belief in an afterlife. In brief, the journey goes like this: our soul first lives a life in the heavenly realms. It’s then placed into a body in this world. After an allotted amount of time, the soul then returns to a place spiritually higher than where it started. This higher place is called, in Hebrew, Gan Eden which is usually translated as the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. It’s a special place where pure souls bask in the revelation of G-dliness.
I keep asking ‘Where is Jacob now’? He went somewhere, but where? What’s he doing? What’s he experiencing? To know that he’s ‘in Heaven’ or ‘in Gan Eden’ is a comfort, but not enough. A big part of my grief is not knowing what’s happening to him. If we know what our loved ones are experiencing on ‘the other side’ we can better cope with them not being with us.
After our lives are finished here (may it not be for a long time), we’ll finally know what happens after we pass on. Until then, we can only get a glimpse of what souls do in the afterlife as described by our Rabbis and Sages. The following insights are taken from an article which appeared in Our Tapestry magazine, a publication for bereaved parents. The article discusses a talk by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, Chabad rabbi in London, Ontario, Canada. Rabbi Gurkow gathers information from the Gemara, Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204), Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), the AriZal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572), and the Kabbalah as to what happens to the immortal soul after the body dies.
What We Call Death is Really a Change of Location From This World To the Next
When Jacob’s soul left his body he essentially moved from this world to the next one. In Hebrew, someone who dies is referred to as ‘nistalek’, meaning relocated. He relocated to a different place, better than the one he left. Those family and friends he left behind are saddened because Jacob is no longer sharing their place and experiences. We can’t connect with him on his level because we only know how to connect as physical beings in bodies.
What Happens When We Die?
What did my son experience after his soul separated from his body? Was he confused, afraid, happy? I truly believe he was very confused. He never expected to die at twenty-four years of age. It was all so sudden. But he was also in physical pain. The pain was abruptly taken away and I can only imagine that he felt immense relief.
Rabbi Gurkow relates a story about a young woman who had a near-death experience. He says what she relates is similar to accounts given by our Sages. She describes floating above her body, looking down at herself, still able to see and hear everything going on around her. She was fully conscious, just not inside her body.
This is why it’s so important to be respectful and careful of how we behave and what we say when we are near a dead body. I remember Jacob lying lifeless in the hospital emergency room. Our Rabbi was seated next to him saying Tehillim (Psalms). Through my tears, all I could think of to say, over and over, was “G-d why did You take my boy away?”. “Jacob, everyone loves you. What am I going to tell your brothers?”. I knew that Jacob understood everything and was saying plenty. I just couldn’t hear him.
The Soul’s Heavenly Clothing
Life Without A Body
Everything in this physical world is a reflection of the spiritual world. In this world people have bodies, and Jacob needed one to interact with others. He wore physical clothing. The clothing he wore, in some way, let others know what he was all about. So what ‘clothing’ is Jacob wearing now? After all, he’s not running around ‘naked’ in Heaven!
In Heaven, one wears ‘heavenly’ clothing the Kabbalists describe as ‘light’. We don’t really know what that is. We can only surmise it’s something transcendental. I’ve heard it said that our souls ascend to Heaven clothed in the mitzvot (good deeds) we performed in this world. Every act of kindness we do has a spiritual effect and those good deeds are our ‘garments’ in Heaven. The more beautiful our acts of goodness and kindness, the more beautiful our Heavenly garments.
In this physical world, we identify with our body. But our bodies are not our essence, who we really are. In Heaven, the body is no longer needed, so it’s left behind. It’s like taking a vacation, going from a cold climate to a warm one. I’m not going to take my winter coat if, at my destination, it’s a pleasant summer’s day. Just like my winter coat that’s carefully hung up and put away, the body is treated respectfully, washed, and returned to the earth.
Heavenly Bookeeping and the Soul’s Choice
The Soul’s Arithmetic
In this spiritual world, we now give an accounting for each moment we lived. All our thoughts, words, and actions are accounted for. My entire life is shown, as if I’m watching a movie. G-d is holding the remote, occasionally pausing the video to ask why I did such and such, and I better have a good answer. Everything I did in public and private is known to all the other souls. This movie is not playing out in my brain, because there is no brain. There’s only my consciousness.
If my sins are more than my good deeds (I hope not), then atonement needs to be made. (More on that in a moment.) If I have more good deeds than bad (I hope so), I go directly to Gan Eden. If it’s a tie, then G-d writes off the bad stuff and lets me into Gan Eden. And it’s not a one to one correspondence. One good deed can outweigh many bad deeds and vice versa. I don’t have to do any math because my soul’s consciousness knows the exact tally.
After this accounting, G-d then asks the soul if it wants to remain in this beautiful, loving spiritual realm or return to the physical world and fix the mistakes that it made. Returning to the physical world is what we call in Hebrew ‘gilgul’, or reincarnation. And the soul makes a choice.
Atonement and Cleansing
G-d’s Spiritual Washing Machine
If the soul chooses to remain in the spiritual world, it needs to be cleansed. Just like stains on clothing that need to be removed, the soul needs to ‘laundered’ before entering into Gan Eden so it may sit before G-d. After all, we wouldn’t appear before an earthly king wearing soiled garments.
But what is this cleansing? Gehinnom, purgatory, hell, or whatever you call it, is described by our Sages as fire. But there’s nothing physical in Heaven, so what is this ‘fire’. Rabbi Gurkow says this fire is a metaphor for heat which is shame, remorse, and regret.
Hopefully, I’ll be proud of how I spent my moments in this world. But there might be things I’m ashamed of. I won’t be ashamed because others now know what I did. There are no ‘others’, only souls. Souls, being sparks from the One G-d aren’t separated from each other. The thoughts and consciousness of each soul is known to all. So if I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed for myself and others are ashamed for me. My bad actions and poor choices while in this physical world affect everyone in Heaven. My soul ‘feels’ this hot flash of shame and, although it’s cleansing, it’s also a painful experience.
How much time does it take for this spiritual washing machine to clean souls? It may take a few moments to a maximum of twelve months. It depends on how many sins we carry in with us. However, we shouldn’t be too worried. All the good deeds we’ve done throughout our lives accompany us to Heaven. As for the bad stuff, when we sincerely repent and live how G-d wants us to (teshuvah), all our sins are forgiven. So most of us won’t arrive in Heaven with too much sinful baggage.
Appearing Before G-d and Heavenly Pleasure
At this point, the soul is squeaky clean. The soul, now pristine and pure, presents itself before G-d. What’s that like? What sort of understanding and pleasure does the soul experience? The soul now understands more about G-d than it ever did while in this world. It sees the ‘big picture’, the ‘why’ of everything it experienced when it was here. Some levels of pleasure are higher than others and there are infinite levels. Our Sages say that if we could bottle up every pleasure we’ve ever had and consume it all at once, it wouldn’t compare to the pleasure of a single moment in Gan Eden.
Much of what we will comprehend in the afterlife depends on how we lived our lives here. Were we engrossed in the physical or did we appreciate the beauty of the esoteric and the spiritual? Did we take time to think about why G-d put us here? Did we perform acts of kindness for others without receiving any benefit, just because G-d wanted us to?
The twelve months after burial is a transition time for the soul. The soul has to get used to life without a body. It must exchange a physical consciousness for a spiritual one. It’s like moving to a country where there’s a new language and culture to learn. It’s hard but the Kaddish recited during the first year helps the transition. (This prayer, recited in memory of a loved one, praises G‑d.) Each day, the soul gains a deeper perception and appreciation of G-d, and gets immeasurable pleasure from this.
What About Those Left Behind?
Has Jacob Forgotten About Me?
I now have some idea of what Jacob is doing. He’s getting accustomed to a new lifestyle, he’s happy being with all our relatives who have passed on, and he’s super happy connecting to G-d. But what about his dad, his brothers, the rest of his family still in this world, and me? Is he so wrapped up in the pleasures of Heaven that he’s forgotten about us?
The Talmud says no. Souls in Heaven stay connected with their loved ones below. When we visit the gravesite, the soul comes down to spend time with us. We have a custom to put a small rock on the headstone. It’s something physical for the soul to ‘hold on to’ while it’s visiting. (The other reason is that it’s a remembrance of our visit and says that the soul was remembered by others.) Our Sages also tell us that the souls of our loved ones are happy and ‘participate’ in our happy occasions like a wedding, a bar and bat mitzvah, a bris, or other happy family occasion. Our loved ones above want very much that we should be happy here. When we’re happy, they’re happy too.
The Connection is Always There
Rabbi Gurkow says that a communication connection always exists between us and our departed loved ones. He describes it as follows: When I’m speaking with someone there are four points of contact – I speak, the other hears, the other person speaks, I hear. Of those four points of contact, three are always in place with our loved ones in Heaven – I can speak, they can hear, they can speak. It’s just that the fourth point is missing. I can’t hear. They can hear us and talk to us. At times we may feel their presence more than at other times, but we can always utilize the three points of contact we do have.
I talk to Jacob. I tell him how his nieces and nephew are doing. I tell him about his Dad and me and how the rest of the family are doing. I tell him how we love him and miss him so much. I ask him to beg G-d to send His Moshiach to the world and eliminate the crying, sighing, and suffering.
We Can Connect To Our Loved Ones in This World
Sending Gifts To Heaven
When Jacob was in college we would talk on the phone. When he was living with us, I enjoyed making him his favorite meals. I liked to give him birthday gifts and new clothes.
My husband and I can still give him gifts. Kaddish said for him is like a phone call from his family. Our acts of kindness performed in his memory are like gifts of beautiful clothing. The Torah we study, thinking and learning about G-d, is like sending him food. The physical acts we perform, and our words of encouragement and kindness to others, give our loved ones above a tremendous spiritual boost.
Rabbi Gurkow teaches that we can be a life for our loved ones in this physical world. Jacob is still very much a part of my life. I can do things for him. I can make him happy. We have to try very hard for our loved ones, in this world and the next, to live a meaningful life of goodness. Then after we return to the world where we started, we’ll have no shame or regrets. May that time not come for many healthy, happy years. And may we all see our loved ones reunited with their physical bodies at the Resurrection when we can hug and kiss them. I know they have a lot to say to us.
For more Torah insight on the Afterlife, read this post by Rabbi Asher Resnick Understanding Olam Haba – the World to Come