Shiur #26: The World-to-Come and the Attitude Toward Death

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The preoccupation with life after death has never ceased. The total severance of life leaves man with his mouth agape. He stands dumbfounded before the sudden disappearance of the vitality that just a moment earlier had filled the deceased's being.


     Over the course of time, this issue has shed old forms and assumed new ones. A God-fearing person has a special attitude towards this matter.


     The Torah itself totally ignores the issue of life after death, what Chazal refer to as "Olam Ha-ba," the World-to-Come. Scripture is filled with descriptions of reward and punishment and of life and death, but nowhere does it relate to the World-to-Come.


     This incontrovertible fact was difficult for the members of Rihal's generation to understand in two senses.


1)   In the theological sense – how is it possible to ignore an issue that is so central to man's being? This is especially true with respect to a man of religious faith, who stands limited, finite, and hopeless before the infinitude of a God who exists from eternity to eternity.


2)   In the polemical sense – the absence of reference to the World-to-Come was exploited by Christian writers to support their argument that the Hebrew Bible is incomplete and merely a first stage that must be followed by the acceptance of Christianity; they claimed that God's revelation to man was completed through Christianity by way of the revelation of reward in the World-to-Come.[1]


On the other hand, the absence of reference to life after death serves the existentialist approaches that see man's real-time standing before God as the heart of religious service. A person must not live in the past; in the same measure, he must not live in the future. The present is what creates the past, and to a great degree, it also lays the foundation for the future. This is the reason, such thinkers would argue, that the Torah ignores the future and places its full weight on life in this world.


The belief in the World-to-Come and the yearning and longing to merit it empties this world of its meaning, in one way or another. In the more moderate case, such a person has no fear of death;[2] he does not view the troubles that befall him as being so terrible, since he believes in the World-to-Come,[3] and he is also not overly impressed by the good that falls his way. In the more radical case, he loses his desire for life, life itself begins to feel like a burden, and he walks through the land of the living with the feeling that every man is false.


However, the belief in the World-to-Come can also radiate on this world in a different way. Chazal say:


This world is like an antechamber before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter into the parlor. (Avot 4:16)


     The antechamber is indeed of secondary importance in relation to the parlor, but according to Rabbi Yaakov, the author of this statement, it is not merely a passageway. It prepares man for entering into the parlor. This idea can be formulated in two ways:


First, prepare yourself well so that you will be fit for the parlor, so that you will not enter it wearing sackcloth or in some other inappropriate manner.


Second – and this is the more accepted understanding – it is through one's actions in this world that a person determines his fate in the World-to-Come. This world is not necessarily an antechamber leading to the parlor; this is merely one possibility. Through his actions, a person can determine whether this world is indeed an antechamber to the World-to-Come or not, God forbid.


     This approach attaches great significance to this world. Man cannot relate with indifference to present reality, since it is critical with respect to his craving and desire for the World-to-Come. Even according to this approach, however, this world is merely the place where man prepares for the World-to-Come.


     When Rihal relates to the World-to-Come, he attaches greater significance than this to this world, and this finds expression on two planes, as we shall see below.




     We have already seen that, according to Rihal, a person is only obligated to believe that which has been demonstrated to him through rational demonstration, or something similar to it. The Torah and its commandments only obligate Israel, because its truth was only demonstrated to them through what they saw with their own eyes, and this proof is equal in its certainty to rational demonstration.


     This is true about any idea, and all the more so regarding the World-to-Come, a concept which is so distant from the real world.


     The various religions promise reward and set an exalted goal before the man who serves God. But none of these things, argues Rihal, can impose obligation, since they remain unproven. The exalted reward of the World-to-Come cannot serve as a goal for a person whose criterion is proof, because "No one has ever returned to inform us whether, after death, he dwelt in paradise or in hell" (I, 109).[4]


     This is not true about the goal and reward promised to a Jew who observes the Torah and its commandments, and from this perspective Rihal follows two courses.


     The first is the very fact that the reward that the Torah promises relates to this world; therefore, a person can see with his own eyes the realization of the promised reward, or lack thereof. This idea is explained through a marvelous parable offered by the Rabbi:


The following parable will illustrate this: One of a company of friends who sought solicitude in a remote spot once journeyed to India, and had honor and rank bestowed on him by her king, who knew that he was one of these friends and who had also known their fathers, former comrades of his own. The king loaded him with presents for his friends, gave him costly raiment for himself, and then dismissed him, sending members of his own retinue to accompany him on his return journey. No one knew that they belonged to the court, nor that they traveled into the desert. He had received commissions and treaties, and in return he had to swear fealty to the king. Then he and his Indian escort returned to his companions, and received a hearty welcome from them. They took pains to accommodate them and to show them honor. They also built a castle and allowed them to dwell in it. Henceforth, they frequently sent ambassadors to India to wait upon the king, which was now more easily accomplished, as the first messengers guided them the shortest and straightest route. All knew that traveling in that country was rendered easier by swearing allegiance to his king and respecting his ambassadors. There was no occasion to inquire why this homage was necessary, because it was patent that by this means he came into connection with the monarch, a most pleasing circumstance.

Now these companions are the Children of Israel, the first traveler is Moses, the later travelers are the prophets, while the Indian messengers are the Shekina and the angels. The precious garments are the spiritual light which dwelt in the soul of Moses on account of his prophet-ship, while the visible light appeared on his countenance. The presents are the two tablets with the Ten Commandments. Those in possession of other laws saw nothing of this, but were told: "Continue in obedience to the King of India as this company of friends, and you will after death become the associates of the king; otherwise he will turn you away, and punish you after death." (I, 109)


     The first advantage of the reward promised by the Torah is its realization in this world. Just as the entire Torah was proven through what the People of Israel witnessed with their own eyes, a proof equivalent to rational demonstration, the reward promised by the Torah is proven in the same manner. This is what makes possible identification and belief, on the one hand, and commitment, on the other.


     The aspect presented here by Rihal explains and justifies the Torah's ignoring of the issue of the World-to-Come. Rihal's position appears even more radical than the mishna in Avot, in that he states that according to one perspective, the relationship between man and God relates exclusively to this world; it is both the antechamber and the parlor.


     Rihal, however, also follows a second course in which he relates not only to the reward promised by the Torah, but also to man's goal in light of that reward and the level towards which man must strive in this world. This is the way he describes those who follow the path of the Torah and achieve prophecy:


He differs from his own kind in the purity of soul, in a yearning for the [higher] degrees and attachment to the qualities of meekness and purity. This was a manifest proof to them, and a clear and convincing sign of reward hereafter. For the only result to be expected from this is that the human soul becomes divine, being detached from material senses, joining the highest world, and enjoying the vision of the divine light, and hearing the divine speech. Such a soul is safe from death, even after its physical organs have perished. If you, then, find a religion the knowledge and practice of which assists in the attainment of this degree, at the place pointed out and with the conditions laid down by it, this is beyond doubt the religion which insures the immortality of the soul after the demise of the body. (I, 103)


     The belief in the World-to-Come is founded on the assumption that the body is merely a garment or vessel for the soul, and that its corruption does not affect the existence of the soul. The death that we encounter relates to man's body, but not his soul.


     This assumption, asserts Rihal, requires proof, and the level of prophecy, the highest level toward which man must strive, proves this argument.


     It is possible, then, to deepen the significance of Rihal's parable by saying that it teaches not only about the realization of the reward that is stated explicitly, but also about the reward that is not stated explicitly.


     According to this approach, the Torah does not mention the World-to-Come because it does not relate to things that cannot be proven. However, the reward that it does in fact promise, or to be more precise, the level reached by one who observes the commandments, is itself proof for the difference between the soul and the body, which makes it possible to believe in the existence of a world of spiritual life after physical death.


     Rihal does not suffice with the application of this idea to the spiritual reward promised by the Torah. According to him, even the material reward relates to this proof:


The Rabbi: Now, all that our promises imply is that we shall become connected with the divine influence by means of prophecy, or something nearly approaching it, and also through our relation to the divine influence, as displayed to us in grand and awe-inspiring miracles. Therefore, we do not find in the Bible: "If you keep this law, I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures." On the contrary it is said: "You shall be My chosen people, and I will be a God unto you, who will guide you. Whoever of you comes to Me and ascends to heaven is as those who, themselves, dwell among the angels, and My angels shall dwell among them on earth. You shall see them singly or in hosts, watching you and fighting for you without your joining in the fight. You shall remain in the country which forms a stepping-stone to this degree, the Holy Land. Its fertility or barrenness, its happiness or misfortune, depend upon the divine influence which your conduct will merit, while the rest of the world would continue its natural course. For if the divine presence is among you, you will perceive by the fertility of your country, by the regularity with which your rainfalls appear in their due seasons, by your victories over your enemies in spite of your inferior numbers, that your affairs are not managed by simple laws of nature, but by the divine Will. You also see that drought, death, and wild beasts pursue you as a result of disobedience, although the whole world lives in peace. This shows you that your concerns are arranged by a higher power than mere nature."

All this, the laws included, is closely connected with the promises, and no disappointment is feared. All these promises have one basis, the anticipation of being near God and His hosts. He who attains this degree need not fear death, as is clearly demonstrated in our Law. (I, 109)


     The significance of the material reward promised to Israel is to demonstrate to them that they are not subject to the laws of nature, but rather to the will of God. It should be noted that Rihal deals indirectly with a question that could be directed against Israel and its Torah: How is it possible that all the other religions (including that of the philosophers) aspire to closeness to God and the angels, whereas the Torah turns to those who serve God and promise them rain and food?


The Rambam relates to the reward and punishment mentioned in the Torah as a means, perhaps even a be-di'eved means, for a person who requires incentives to fulfill the Torah, just like a child who needs a prize for proper behavior. According to the Rambam, however, it is clear that the higher level is the aspiration to know God and comprehend Him without intending to receive a material reward. In this sense, this aspiration is similar to the aspiration of "other religions" discussed by Rihal.


Rihal, on the other hand, does not recoil from material reward, although he, too, gives it greater spiritual significance. It is not "bedi'eved," but it itself merely reveals the fact that Israel is not subject to the laws of nature, and that their closeness to God is not theoretical, but rather a very real matter. Rihal argues that the feelings of a person who sits and philosophizes and thereby feels the closeness of God are dwarfed by the feelings of a farmer who stands before the rain falling in its due season in a year of global drought due to his good deeds, and before those of a small army that defeats all its enemies in contradiction to all military logic merely because the nation is walking in the path of God.


According to this, the advantage of the reward promised by the Torah is that it is proven and immediate. The Torah follows its own standards of proof not only with respect to the Torah itself, but also with regard to the reward promised therein.[5]




     Thus far, we have seen Rihal's position that this world serves as an antechamber to the World-to-Come in that it lays the evidential foundation for the existence of life after death. The belief in the World-to-Come entertained by non-Jews has nothing to rely upon, argues Rihal, and it is only Israel that is obligated by this belief, because it rests, like all of Israel's beliefs, on a foundation of proven demonstrations.


     Now we shall see that this world also serves as an antechamber on the plane of preparation, but in a way that is different from the accepted understanding. It was suggested above that according to Rabbi Yaakov in tractate Avot, a person can determine by way of his actions whether or not he will merit the World-to-Come. In this sense, the World-to-Come is understood as a reward, and as we saw above, according to this understanding, this world is of secondary importance in relation to it and merely a means for achieving the more exalted objective.


     Rihal seems to have understood the matter differently, and thus his attitude toward this world is also different. The World-to-Come, according to Rihal, is nothing but closeness to God. This closeness reaches its climax after the soul separates from the body, which acts as a barrier between it and God. This level is gradually acquired in this world, and it is designated for those who walk in the path of the Torah and the mitzvot, which leads to that attainment:


The Rabbi: We do not deny that the good actions of any man, to whichever people he may belong, will be rewarded by God. But the priority belongs to people who are near God during their life, and we estimate the rank they occupy near God after death accordingly. (I, 111)


     The causal connection between one's level in this world and the World-to-Come is not a connection of reward and punishment, but rather a connection of process. Man's aspiration in this world, according to Rihal, is to climb up to the level of MosheRabbenu, from the natural level to the divine level, and thus bring to the elevation of the soul and its overcoming the burden of the body. The World-to-Come is a direct continuation of that desired level, the level that a person reaches, or fails to reach, in this world.


     The novelty of this perspective lies in the fact that this world is no longer of secondary importance in relation to the World-to-Come. The goal is the spiritual level that is gradually acquired, man moving along an axis in which the World-to-Come is the highest point. The gap, according to this understanding, between the World-to-Come and this world is very small. Man's aspiration for the World-to-Come is, in essence, not a dream about a vague and unknown future, but it is rather fully connected to man's existence in this world.


     Another ramification of this perspective is that it answers the question regarding the Torah's failure to mention the World-to-Come. According to this understanding, the Torah does, in fact, relate to the World-to-Come. The search for closeness to God and the promises of providence, the holy spirit, and prophecy, are all part of the ladder, the highest rung of which is the World-to-Come.


     It seems to me that this is the way to understand the following passage:


Why should we need such artificial theories in order to prove the life of the soul after the dissolution of the body, considering that we have reliable information with regard to the return of the soul, be it spiritual or corporeal? (V, 14)


     The verification of the stories of the Sages regarding "the evil spirits, the description of the events to be expected during the days of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead and the World to Come" (ibid.) lies in the fact that they are all based on the recognition of the exaltedness of the soul and its ability to separate from the body. And all this is proven by way of rational demonstrations and by way of the attainments reached by the supreme prophet – MosheRabbenu.




     What has been said above, has, of course, ramifications regarding the attitude toward death.


     As we have already seen, the aspiration for the World-to-Come necessarily radiates on the perspective on death. The trait of equanimity in Chassidut set before its eyes the eternal life of the soul; one was never to be afraid of death and related to it, at the very least, with serenity, and sometimes even with joy.


Rihal also relates to this ramification, which seems to follow from recognition of the World-to-Come:


The Khazar king: The anticipations of other churches are grosser and more sensuous than yours.

The Rabbi: They are none of them realized till after death, while during this life nothing points to them.

The Khazar king: Maybe; I have never seen anyone who believed in these promises desire their speedy fulfillment. On the contrary, if he could delay them a thousand years, and remain in the bonds of this life in spite of the hardship of this world, he would prefer it.

The Rabbi: What is your opinion concerning he who witnessed those grand and divine scenes?

The Khazar king: That he, no doubt, longs for the perpetual separation of his soul from his material senses, in order to enjoy that light. It is such a person who would desire death. (I, 104-108)


     Only that this is not true, according to Rihal, about one of "our servants of God." As we already saw above, the Torah sets man's spiritual goal in this world. He must strive to reach that goal, and from this perspective, there are no short-cuts. He desires life, because life affords him the opportunity to lift himself up to the highest level.


     Rihal recognizes an attitude of indifference toward death, but he does not understand it as resulting from belief in and hope for the World-to-Come, but rather from the level that a person reaches when his soul recognizes and feels that it has separated from his body. This is the way that Rihal describes a person who has reached prophetic visions and cognitions:


But as soon as the whole is properly accomplished, and you see the divine fire, or notice in yourself a new spirit, unknown before, or see true visions and great apparitions, you are aware that this is the fruit of the preceding actions, as well as of the great influence with which you have come in contact. When you have arrived at this goal, care not that you must die. Your death is but the decay of your body, while the soul having reached this step, cannot descend from it nor be removed. (III, 23)


     The attitude of equanimity toward death must find coverage, argues Rihal, and this coverage is not acquired through belief and intellectual cognition, but rather through a spiritual level. In light of what we have seen thus far, this level can be acquired in two ways:


     The first way is through a revelation that proves that the soul can be raised and separated from the body. This is found among the prophets and to a certain degree also among the pious.


     The second is the spiritual level that a person reaches in this world, at which he himself will feel that his soul has reached a level from which there is no going down, and that his body no longer has any effect, for good or for bad. Thus, his corruption or continued existence do not touch upon or influence his spiritual state.


     For this reason, argues Rihal, the Moslems' faith in the World-to-Come does not bring them to the level of equanimity in the face of death. This is what we saw above, and it is to this that Rihal alludes in the following passage:


Some might say: No one ever returned to inform us whether, after death, he dwelt in paradise or in hell. The majority were satisfied with the arrangement, which coincided with their views. They obeyed willingly, and allowed themselves to entertain a faint hope, which to all appearance was a very strong one, as they commenced to be proud and to behave haughtily towards other people. But how can they boast of expectations after death to those who enjoy the fulfillment already in life? Is not the nature of the prophets and godly men nearer to immortality than the nature of him who never reached that degree? (I, 109)


     The prophets and the pious, who have tasted the World-to-Come while still in this world, believe in it and fearlessly face death, which marks the final transition from the one to the other.


     According to Rihal, then, a Jew desires life and wishes with all his being to use it in order to ascend the spiritual ladder which culminates in the separation of the soul from the body.


The Rabbi: According to our view a servant of God is not one who detaches himself from the world, lest he be a burden to it, and it to him; or hates life, which is one of God's bounties granted to him, as it is written: "The number of your days I will fulfill;" "You shall live long" (Shemot 23:26). On the contrary, he loves the world and a long life, because it affords him opportunities of deserving the World to Come. The more good he does, the greater is his claim to the next world. He even reaches the degree of Enoch, concerning whom it is said: "And Enoch walked with God" (Bereishit 5:24); or the degree of Elijah, freed from worldly matters, and to be admitted to the realm of angels. In this case, he feels no loneliness in solitude and seclusion, since they form his associates. He is rather ill at ease in a crowd, because he misses the divine presence which enables him to dispense with eating and drinking. Such persons might perhaps be happier in complete solitude; they might even welcome death, because it leads to the step beyond which there is none higher. (III, 1)


     Death does, indeed, pose a threat to Rihal,[6] but not because it severs life and brings it to an end, but rather because it cuts off a person's efforts to reach that level that even death's sword cannot touch.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] This issue was addressed by I. Gutmann in his Ha-Filosofiya Shel Ha-Yahadut, p. 51.

[2] It is related about Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the author of the Tanya, that when he was arrested in St. Petersburg, his interrogator stood before him waving a dagger and vowed that he would get him to speak. The founder of Chabad answered him: "The dagger in your hand threatens only one who has only one world and many gods. But it does not frighten in the least one who has one god and many worlds."

[3] And a person suffers in this world so that he will enjoy greater reward in the World-to-Come.

[4] The existential ramifications of faith of this sort, which is not based on a firm foundation, will be discussed in the continuation.

[5] It is interesting to note that despite all that is stated here, Rihal tries to show that the rewards of the World-to-Come are abundantly described in the words of Chazal, and even alluded to in the words of the prophets: "From the very beginning, I only spoke to you of what is contained in the books of the Prophets. They, however, do not discuss the promises of after-life with so much diffuseness as is done in the sayings of the Rabbis. Nevertheless, the prophetic books allude to the return of the dust of the human body to the earth, while the spirit returns to the Creator who gave it…" (I, 115).

[6] For this reason, he lists as one of the virtues of the pious individual the trait of acknowledging the rightness of Divine judgment. If Rihal did not view death in a negative light, he would not view this trait as a virtue.