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Home :: Pichifkes :: What Is Death?

What Is Death?

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By Yitzchak Vorst

(Editor's note: The following pages are an excerpt from a longer essay written by the author following the tragic death of his three-year-old son in a car accident; the full essay, which explores various aspects of the chassidic approach to death and bereavement amidst the author's own reactions to his loss, can be viewed by clicking here.)

How can we understand and explain the process of dying? How can we clarify the nature of life after death?

If there is something we cannot understand directly, using a parable can help. In this case, let me use the example of television.

A person sits and watches a program on a television screen. The set has already received the program, and it appears clearly on the screen. However, even before it reached the screen, for an instant, the program already existed in the form of waves, sent through the air by a transmitting station.

The operation of television can thus be divided into three parts:

1) the transmitting station;

2) the waves;

3) the receiver.

Suppose that suddenly, for some reason, the person doesn’t see the picture anymore. Something goes wrong, and the set no longer shows the program on the screen. That part of the television system has ceased to exist. The station, however, continues to transmit the program, which is still present in the form of waves. But the man before the set cannot see them. As far as he is concerned the program is gone...

Analogously, I might say that the totality of my person consists of a body and a soul and a "region" between the two. What I feel of myself, how I experience myself, is not the soul itself, but the radiation of the soul - the light of the soul as it is received by my body and expressed in thoughts and feelings. And it is the radiations of the soul that cause the mechanism of my body to function.

Before a child is born he already exists - as a soul. The soul radiates light. The further the light "recedes", the weaker it becomes. That is, in fact, the meaning of the statement "the soul descends" (that is when the soul goes down into the body - translator's comment). Not that the soul itself descends, but only an emission of light from the soul. At birth, through its light, the soul makes contact with the body, and this baby comes to life. From this moment on, the person no longer consists of merely two parts - the soul and the light of the soul - but of three. The body has been added.

The intensity of the soul itself is too great for the body to absorb. But the intensity of the soul's light is tailored to allow for an earthly existence. This may also vary during the course of one's earthly existence: this intensity can increase or decrease. There are many factors which determine the process.

At the end of a person's earthly existence the contact of the light of the soul with the body is broken. Then the person again consists of its two original parts, the soul and its light. In this regard the person continues to exist. It is now clear that no material event, from a car accident to bullets, can terminate the entire existence of a person.

The Connection that Remains

Here is what the Lubavitcher rebbe wrote to a war widow in a letter, provided here in free translation:

"The ties between two people, and certainly those between a husband and wife, or between parents and children, are chiefly of a spiritual, not of a material, nature. That means that a bullet, a grenade, or a disease can affect the body, but not the spirit or the soul. The physical bond between two persons can be broken by a bullet, but not their spiritual relationship.

The soul of a departed person remains in contact with the members of his family, especially with the most beloved ones. The deceased "knows" what happens here. Our grief is his grief and our joy is his joy. If we have the strength to continue living, especially when we, as Jews, live a Jewish life (that is observing and keeping G-d's commandments - translator's comment), we give the deceased, who observes all this, a very special experience of happiness."


This explanation can help us better understand the idea of reincarnation (soul rebirth - translator's comment). In a current life, the soul of a person may establish contact with a body, leading an earthy existence, for the first time. But it is also possible that this soul was previously connected with another body. In such a case, through its radiation, it absorbs many impressions and a great deal of information. Certainly many of these are positive, but there are some which are undoubtedly negative. Consequently, the soul must undergo a process of Tikkun (fixing - Biblical language translation), cleansing and repair. This process may occur "above", but it may also take place here. If it is G-d’s will that the tikkun take place here, the soul is "reborn", reincarnated.

Although Judaism recognizes the concept of reincarnation, it is not presented as something to be studied in detail. Nevertheless, it is important for us to be aware of its existence, as it sheds light on many of the questions with which we struggle, including the meaning of suffering.

Resurrection of the Dead

In Baderech we once discussed the concepts of "the afterlife" and "Resurrection of the Dead". We wrote the following:

"How should we imagine the "Resurrection of the Dead"?

To find an answer, we should first realize that man is more than body alone; man is a combination of body and soul.

In the past, this idea was generally accepted, as there has always been an intuitive awareness of the soul as an independent, higher entity of all the "experiences of the soul", religious and aesthetic experiences and the consciousness of a self - independent of the body - are probably the most characteristic aspects of human perception.

Nineteenth-century materialism tried to explain all experiences of the soul as phenomena of the brain, as physical functions, just like breathing and digestion. This group denied the existence of the soul as something "independent" of the body. As a scientific-philosophical system, this view, whereby man is merely a physiologically functioning organism, never had many adherents. It failed to fully explain the phenomenon of "man" in a truly satisfactory manner. Moreover, such phenomena as telepathy, telekinesis, bilocation, which have been empirically proven to exist, are strong arguments for the existence of both body and soul.

The body receives the "soul-light" and lives by it. When this light no longer radiates within the body, the person is "dead" - which means that the physical aspect of his being has vanished. His soul, however, now independent of the body, lives on.

(But even after the soul has departed from the body, the experience of physicality does not disappear entirely. A bond continues to exist between the soul and the remains of the body, the place where the body was buried and the tombstone was erected. The rituals of shiva and the 30 days of mourning, and other mourning customs, are also related to, and involved with, this continuing bond.)

While alive in this world, a person perceives himself as body enlivened by the soul.

When a person dies and his body ceases to function, he experiences life on the level of the soul and the light of the soul, which we cannot observe. To us, he is dead - in reality, though, he continues to exist in another state.

This other state is called Gan Eden (paradise – Biblical language translation)(for those who deserved it - translator's comment), the "Hereafter". It is the state from which the soul originally "descended" in order to make contact with the body. And it is to this state that the soul returns after death.

Concerning this state of existence RAMBAM writes:

Just as the blind cannot see the spectrum of colors and the deaf cannot hear sound, so too the mortal body cannot understand the spiritual joys (attained in the Hereafter) which are eternal. These joys have nothing in common with the happiness derived from material things. The essential nature of this heavenly bliss lies in the perception of the Essence of the Creator... in the Hereafter, where our souls become wise with the knowledge of G-d.

Presently, this joy is unknowable and completely beyond description. There is nothing in our experience that compares to it. For us mortal creatures, it is merely possible to speak of it in the words of the prophet which express the wonder of this eternal joy: "How abundant is Your goodness!"

But this state, too, eventually comes to an end when the dead arise and man again becomes a combined entity of soul and body, but a body of an unimaginably higher spiritual quality.

When "the days of the Mashiach" (Messiah – Biblical language translation) arrive and specifically when the dead arise, the world will reach the perfection for which it was created.

At that time people shall perceive, even with eyes of flesh and blood, the Essence of the Creator, as we read in Scripture (Isaiah 30:20): "Then shall your Teacher not hide Himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher." Through this abundant light, which will then be the ration for Israel and the peoples of the world, the darkness of the entire world will be illuminated, as we read in the Holy Writings (Isaiah 40:5): "And the glory of the L-rd shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together."

An Embryo's Perception

This idea that we cannot imagine life in the Hereafter and of the Resurrection of the Dead is elsewhere explained as follows:

The life of the embryo in its mother’s womb is entirely different from its life after birth. It is nourished through the umbilical cord and the circulation of its blood is connected to that of its mother. Its mouth, nose, eyes, and ears do not function. Its little arms and legs are folded.

Imagine the unborn baby imagining life after its embryonic state. Would it be able to form an image of that life? And would it long for it? It would probably fear the moment of its "death", which is in fact the moment of its birth. For it is the passage from one form of life to another. And this transition is so radical that it is impossible for a being in one state to imagine the other.

The same is true of the passage from the earthly state to the "heavenly" existence, and from that to the final state - the Resurrection of the Dead.

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