By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
In our temple, we always were told that we Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, but we recently heard in a class that we believe there’s a place called the “world to come.” What does Judaism believe about what happens after death? Do we believe there is an afterlife? If there is a world to come, where is it?
— Taryn and Jamie
Dear Taryn and Jamie,
The belief in an afterlife is one of the core “13 principles of faith,” the 13 most basic Jewish beliefs. This is the foundation for the Jewish concept of eternal reward and retribution. It is predicated upon the eternity of the soul, which is a spark of Godliness.
The soul is matched up with a physical body with a particular mission to accomplish in this world, as part of Jewish and world history. By fulfilling that mission the soul reaches its own private tikkun.
The first place the soul enters after leaving this world is called Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). This place, which is the world of souls, is temporary and is mainly a holding place of bliss and happiness until the final olam haba (next world).
The stage called the next world or world to come refers to that period of time, subsequent to the Messianic period, when the souls of those who were righteous in this world will be reunited with their bodies, which will come back to life in a greatly elevated spiritual state.
Unlike this world, where our souls are mostly covered up by our physical bodies, the bodies will be almost transparent in the world to come, with the intense illumination of our souls shining out. These new, spiritual bodies, which grow out of our decayed physical bodies, remain eternally connected to our souls and share in the soul’s reward.
One reason for this is that our souls cannot fulfill their purposes and their tikkun without the partnership of our bodies. A soul on its own cannot light Shabbat candles, give tzedakah or blow a shofar. A soul in a body can. Consequently, the ultimate reward can only be to the partnership of the body and soul, albeit in a greatly heightened spiritual state.
An example of this idea would be a plain gray caterpillar, which spins a cocoon, its “grave,” and “dies” there, only to emerge from its “death” as a beautiful multi-colored butterfly that can soar into the sky. Our dense, physical bodies will come out of their state of decay into immense, spiritual bodies that will soar above anything we can now imagine. It is in that state that the new, improved bodies will reunite with the soul and together enjoy the eternal reward for all they did together in their first life upon this world.
The bliss and ecstasy the body/soul will enjoy in the world to come is a direct outgrowth of the actions the person performed in this physical world. More deeply, the reward is actually the mitzvot that the person fulfilled. Every mitzvah is filled with spiritual light; we just don’t have the “spiritual eyes” to see that light in our present state.
The Kabbalists teach that when one performs the mitzvah, he is enveloped by that spiritual light, it becoming deeply connected to the performer. When finished, that light brought out by the mitzvah is transferred to that person’s “bank account” in the spiritual world, and becomes another spiritual brick in that person’s own personal world to come — a world that person is building himself through his or her own actions.
Olam Haba is not simply a generic place one either gets a “ticket” to get in or not. Rather it’s everyone’s own individual connection to God. That connection to God, that illumination, which is the greatest possible enjoyment, is that person’s Olam Haba. It is there that one experiences the overwhelming joy of fulfillment in the realization of his or her potential, the deepest pleasure of closeness to God, the source of all that is good.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.