Resurrection – Wishful Thinking or Reality?

My previous post, Life in the Afterlife, talks about living a life in the spiritual world after death. Now we discuss the final step of the soul’s journey – resurrection and returning to this physical world. After we’ve passed on, will we live again? Will we be reunited with our loved ones? Will a bodily resurrection really happen or is it wishful thinking?

A major belief in Judaism is that, after a person dies, the soul will again be placed in a physical body. This is last of the Thirteen Principles of Faith by the Rambam (Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204):

“ I believe with complete faith that there will be resurrection of the dead at the time when it will be the will of the Creator, blessed be His name and exalted be His remembrance forever and ever.”

Why is the Rambam so sure this will happen? The answer is that there are so many sources in Tanach ( the collection of all Hebrew scripture which includes the Torah) which refer to the resurrection of the dead. However, we know that some verses in Tanach are interpreted allegorically. Why not interpret verses referring to a resurrection allegorically as well, like a story or parable?

We don’t interpret these verses as allegorical because the concept of resurrection is stated so clearly that these verses cannot be explained other than literally.

Sources from the Prophets and Writings for Resurrection of the Dead

The clarity of the verses speak for themselves. There are numerous sources from the Torah and Talmud dealing with resurrection which are too numerous to relate here. What follows are some examples that either allude to, or overtly mention, a resurrection.

The Book of Daniel

At the end of this book, the angel tells Daniel: “…those who sleep in the earth shall awaken…” (Daniel 12:2) “…as for you…you will rest and arise to your lot at the End of Days.” (Daniel 12:13)

Pirkie Avot

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a compilation of ethical teachings of the Sages, includes a statement from Rabbi Elazar HaKapar:

“…Those who are born will die, those who are dead will live again.” (Pirkie Avot 4:22)

The Book of Isaiah:

Isaiah declares “…May your dead come to life, may my corpse arise. Awake and joyously shout, you who sleep in the dust.” (Isaiah 26:19)

The Book of Ezekiel

In chapter 37, Ezekiel’s prophecy tells of being taken to a valley of dry bones. While there is debate among the commentators as to whom the bones belonged, the concept of resurrection is stated:

G-d says to Ezekiel: “…prophesy and say to them, ‘Behold I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, My people, and I shall bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am G-d when I open your graves and when I raise you from your graves…and I shall put My spirit into you and you shall live…’” (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Sources in the Torah for Resurrection of the Dead

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin includes many discussions among the Sages about resurrection having its source in the Torah:

Rabbi Simai asks “…Where do we find an allusion to the resurrection of the dead in the Torah?…For it’s stated ‘I have established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan’” (Sanhedrin 90b)

This refers to the verse in Exodus 6:4 where G-d relates to Moses what He said to the Patriarchs regarding giving them the land of Canaan. Here, G-d does not say to Moses ‘to give you’ but rather it says ‘to give them’. Thus, the Patriarchs will be resurrected and take possession of the land.

One of the most famous passages in the Torah describes the splitting of the sea following the Jewish exodus from Egypt. At that momentous occasion, the people were spiritually inspired to sing songs of praise to G-d. Most English translations render this verse as:

“Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to G-d.”

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) points out that the Hebrew is actually in the future tense and should read:

“Then Moses and the Children of Israel will sing this song to G-d.”

Just as they sang to G-d at the splitting of the sea, they will also rise and sing praises to G-d at the resurrection.

Why Resurrection in a Body?

Since resurrection is a reality, the next question is why? Why can’t people just remain as souls happily basking in the light of the Divine Presence? Why bring souls back down in bodies?

To answer this question, we need to answer another question first.

What is the Purpose of Creation?

Our Sages teach that G-d created numerous spiritual worlds, and despite that, He desires to have a home in this physical world. How do we make this world G-d’s home? By revealing His presence here. We do that by fulfilling His commandments and performing acts of goodness and kindness. Although our souls inspire our bodies to perform G-d’s will, it’s the body that does the work, whether through thought, speech, or action. The body needs reward as well as the soul. Why shouldn’t it be resurrected?

The prophet Isaiah says about the Messianic era:

“…the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the seabed.” (Isaiah 11:9)

Just as water fills every nook and cranny of the ocean floor, there will be no place devoid of the knowledge of G-d. Just as the ocean is vast, so too, will the knowledge of G-d fill the minds of every single inhabitant in the world. The world will attain a physical and spiritual perfection even greater than the perfection of the world at the time of creation. At that time physicality will be so refined that we will be able to withstand total G-dly revelation, something we can’t do now. G-d will no longer hide himself. We will be able to see the G-dly energy, His Essence, in every entity, both living and inanimate.

We know of tzadikkim who were so spiritually sensitive they could sense Divinity in physicality. The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745–1812), on his deathbed asked his son to look up and tell him what he saw. His son replied, ‘I see the beams of the ceiling’. Said the Alter Rebbe, ‘I see the G-dly energy that keeps the beams in existence.

This explains why lofty souls such as the Patriarchs and Moses will come down from Gan Eden to be resurrected in bodies. The level of Divinity they appreciated for thousands of years in the spiritual realms won’t compare to the level they will appreciate in this perfected world where the Essence of G-d will be totally revealed. And for this, they will need a physical body.

At the time of the resurrection, the world will have attained the ultimate perfection. Souls will return in a refined body, a body able to withstand the revelation of, and appreciate, G-d’s Essence.

Resurrection in a body thus fulfills the purpose of creation.

Which Body Will Come Back?

In Life in the Afterlife, I talked about gilgul or reincarnation. If mistakes are made during our lives, we are given an opportunity to fix them by returning to this world again. As far as the final resurrection is concerned, an obvious question arises. If I’ve been reincarnated, perhaps even many times, in which body will I return at the resurrection?

The AriZal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572) teaches that each time a soul comes into this world, one of its soul components is rectified. In other words, each lifetime fixes a mistake. At the resurrection, each returning soul will be clothed in the body it had each time it came down. The same soul can thus inhabit more than one body. We can also look at it from the idea of a candle flame (soul) and wick (body). One candle flame can light many individual wicks and the original flame is not diminished.

What About Overpopulation?

The next obvious question is: Where is G-d going to put all those resurrected people? I suppose, if after the resurrection we won’t need to sustain our bodies with food, all the farmland could be used to build homes. Maybe uninhabited land will become habitable by then.

Or, just like the miracle of resurrection, G-d will see to it that the earth miraculously will be able to sustain all its inhabitants. When the people came to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, despite the crowds, there was room for everyone:

“…when the people stood they were crowded together, yet when they prostrated themselves they had ample space…nor did anyone say to his fellow ‘The place is too crowded for me to stay overnight in Jerusalem.’” (Pirkie Avot 5:5)

There are several places in Tanach where a small space held many people. To cite one example, in Vayikra (the book of Leviticus), G-d tells Moses:

“Gather the entire assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Vayikra 8:3)

Rashi comments that this is one of the places in Scripture where ‘the little held the many’.

The Midrash Tanchuma relates that Moses was incredulous. He asked G-d:

“Master of the World, there are over 600,000 people! How will I have them all stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting?…(G-d replied) In time to come, I will do the same in Zion. How will all the people from the Adam the first man until the dead rise have room to stand? What shall I do for them? I shall enlarge it.” (Midrash Tanchuma, parsha Tzav, section 12)

From What Will the Body Be Rebuilt?

We wonder how the dead will come back to life, since after time, there’s almost nothing left of the body in the grave. We do know that the bodies of tzadikkim (righteous people), who led a physically and spiritually pure life here on earth, do not decompose in the grave. But what about the rest of us? What will G-d use to reconstruct our bodies?

Our Sages tells that G-d will rebuild the body from the ‘luz’ bone. This small bone apparently lasts forever. Some say it’s the coccyx bone at the base of the spine. Others say it’s a bone at the back of the lower part of the skull.

Hence, G-d will not recreate, but rebuild, as the verse from Isaiah seems to say:

“May Your dead live, My corpses shall rise; awaken and sing, you who dwell in the dust…” (Isaiah 26:19)

It says ‘May your dead live’, not ‘be created’.

In Conclusion

We really don’t know how or when the resurrection will take place. We only know that it will occur. As the angel tells Daniel:

“Go Daniel! For the matters are hidden and sealed till the End.” (Daniel 12:9)

May we and our loved ones arise at the End of Days to a perfect world. A world with only G-d’s palpable goodness and revealed blessings.

(Concepts in this article are found in the book To Live and Live Again by Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov)

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