Why is this week’s parsha called the life of Sarah when it is really more about her death? What happens after we die? Why is so little typically mentioned about the Torah’s perspective on the afterlife?
Many of the other world’s major religions focus on what happens after a person dies. Christianity has a very well established notion of Heaven and Hell. They even envision the final rapture that will occur when their savior returns again. Islam is so focused on the paradise that awaits its followers that some are even willing to give up their lives in the name of their religion as shahids (martyrs) in order to advance their religious zealotry. Death and the afterlife are a major focus for these religions.
Judaism does not share this approach. Our Torah tradition states, “Therefore choose life” (Devarim 30:19.) Judaism is a life-affirming faith. The focus is on life on earth and its benefits, which are regarded as divine blessings. Their legitimate enjoyment is not only permitted but mandated. We are adjured to serve Hashem with simcha in this world, not to live as ascetics (Tehillim 100:2).
Despite its affirmation of the value of earthly life, the Jewish tradition believes in the conscious immortality of the soul beyond the grave. R’ Abner Weiss points out that life after death is attested to in the Torah, elaborated upon in rabbinical writings, announced in our daily prayers and is found in Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith. The soul continues to exist in a nonphysical dimension, which we call Heaven or Gan Eden. Death is merely one’s passage into a higher, more meaningful, more spiritual and more satisfying realm of existence.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91a) recounts the many allusions in the Torah to the resurrection of the dead. Jews believe in Olam Habah, the World to Come, as well as techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead. There are six references to it in the second paragraph of the Amidah alone.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asked why these ideas seem to be absent from the Tanach. When Job suffers tremendous afflictions, for example, why did no one say to him, “ You will be rewarded in the afterlife”? Why is the afterlife merely hinted at in the Torah, he wondered, not fully described?
He refers back to the verses in Devarim (30:15-19) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil... I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life so that you and your children may live.”
Life is good, death is bad. Life is a blessing, death is a curse. Unlike the ancient Egyptians who built mausoleums for their pharaohs, Moshe’s burial place is unknown. This is so his tomb should never become a place of worship and pilgrimage.
How then do we envision immortality? Rabbi Sacks suggests that we achieve immortality by being part of the eternal covenant—by living our lives carrying on the values and traditions of our faith and our ancestors. “When you live your life within a covenant, something extraordinary happens. Your parents and grandparents live on in you. You live on in your children and grandchildren. They are part of your life. You are part of theirs.”
Jewish tradition teaches us that Heaven is not an actual physical place but a spiritual dimension where there are gradations of how close we are to Hashem and thereby actualize our neshamot (souls). The mystics teach us that we help elevate the neshama by repeating the Kaddish prayer every day, magnifying and elevating Hashem’s name. Our Sages tell us that even more important than repeating the Kaddish prayers, we can magnify and honor God’s name by observing and following our mitzvot and traditions. This, more than repeating the Kaddish, acts as a tikkun for the neshama of the deceased.
On many matzeivot (tombstones) we engrave the acronym that signifies “may their lives be bound with that of the living.” What exactly does that mean, the bond of the living? One way to interpret this might be that the souls of our loved ones will always be bound with us, the living survivors, so long as we continue to cherish their memories in our hearts, follow their examples and maintain the Jewish traditions that made them who they are.
While the Jewish approach toward death and the afterlife is complex, there is one thing we can be sure of. We need to celebrate life and live it righteously. As long as we keep the covenant and follow in the ways of our ancestors they will live on inside of us. We, in turn, will live on in our children and descendants. We will even live on in our disciples and the recipients of our acts of kindness. In the meantime, let us focus on the time we have here on Earth. Let us remember to choose life so that we can receive the full blessings of Hashem.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is acting president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]