IS THERE A HEAVEN OR A HELL OR EVEN DEATH ITSELF
Many stories describe the difference between heaven and hell. In one, a person who dies is met by the heavenly gate keeper. "What does hell look like?" wonders the newly deceased. She is taken to a room with a large table surrounded by people. The table is set with delectable things to eat and drink. But the people are continuously angry and miserable, starving because their arms are encased in locked, metal sleeves and they cannot bend their arms to bring their hands to their mouths no matter how hard they try.
Heaven is the room next door. It also has a table filled with food and the people in this room also wear sleeves over their arms. But the people in this room are happy and calm, for they have learned to feed each other.
In another tale, a person dies and awakens in a beautiful garden. The keeper of the garden is quite solicitous and gives the person whatever he asks for. He wants a beautiful house and the house of his dreams instantly appears. He wants a perfect spouse and the ideal spouse materializes. Each day he requests something new and each day his wish is fulfilled. This goes on for many months. His wishes become more extravagant. He gets everything he wants. Nothing is lacking. He runs out of things to request. Days go by without a wish, then months.
He becomes bored. There is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge him. The taste of everything goes flat. Finally, one day, he says to the keeper of the garden, "I've been thinking that maybe I would like to see what things are like on the other side."
The garden-keeper says, "The other side, what do you mean?"
"I mean that I wish I could see what it would be like to be in hell."
"Oh," said the garden-keeper, "But my friend, where do you think you have been all this time?"
Heaven and hell are not necessarily what we think they are. The same experience can be heaven or hell depending upon our point of view. So too the idea of resurrection, life after death. If we view it as something out of reach in the distant future, we are wearing mental mind-sleeves, so to speak. We are separated from it and cannot bend our thoughts to nourish our souls. But if we see the on-going relationship between God-ing and creation-ing, we fully connect with the understanding that resurrection is a continuous process, happening right now.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, "Everyone says that there is a dimension of reality called 'This World'(Olam Ha-zeh), and another called the 'World to Come' (Olam Ha-bah). Maybe there is [actually] a reality called This World somewhere [else], but given the constant suffering we see around us, it appears that we currently live in Gehinnom [hell]."13
The netherworld in Judaism is usually referred to as Gehinnom, which comes from the name of a valley south of Jerusalem, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom (Gei Hinnom), where idolatrous tribes sacrificed children by fire to the god Moloch.13
It was known as a place of torture. The prophet Jeremiah said it would be designated forever as the Valley of Slaughter.13
From these references it became known as a place of retribution, where punishment was doled out.
The netherworld is also known by a variety of other names: Sheol,13
the grave, the dust, Abaddon, silence, the depths of the pit and the land of darkness. There are widely differing views about what happens in the netherworld, but they are universally gruesome: eternal suffering from fire, freezing, hanging, suffocation, disemboweling and any other awful crippling or maiming that could be conjured by a fertile imagination.14
Each Rosh Hashana, which is a Day of Judgment, souls are divided into three groups: the thoroughly righteous, the thoroughly wicked and the intermediate.14
The house of Shammai said that the righteous will go straight to Paradise, the wicked will be doomed to Gehinnom forever, and the intermediate will be punished and then released.
The house of Hillel disagreed. They said that God is always merciful and therefore the wicked are not punished forever. According to this view, most souls spend a maximum of twelve months for purification and then are released. Only a handful of crimes, such as not believing in the eternal nature of the soul,14
scoffing the Torah, or informing on an innocent person, result in extended residence in the netherworld beyond twelve months; but even then, hell does not last for eternity. The house of Hillel says, "Gehinnom will be consumed [in the messianic era], but [those condemned for extended time in hell] will not be consumed."14
In other words, they will outlast Gehinnom. Indeed, the Talmud says outright, "There is no Gehinnom in the world to come.14
The ancient sages suggested that the proportions of Gehinnom were enormous compared with the world. They said, "Egypt is one-sixtieth of Ethiopia; Ethiopia is one-sixtieth of the [known] world, the world is one-sixtieth of the Garden [of Eden]; the Garden is one-sixtieth of Eden, Eden is one-sixtieth of Gehinnom. Therefore the entire world is like a [tiny] pot lid compared with Gehinnom."14
Hell is 3,600 times larger than the Garden of Eden, and 196,000 times larger than earth. No wonder our lives seem to be in Gehinnom so much. From this, we gain perspective into the rabbinic view of the world to come. If the huge dimension of Gehinnom were eliminated, a world without suffering would ensue that would seem like paradise.
Although there are differences of opinion regarding what the "world to come" represents, it is generally viewed as a time of messianic consciousness.14
Following the view that there would be no Gehinnom at that time, the idea of divine retribution would take a different form. Then, it is said, the Holy One will take the sun "from its sheath and the righteous will be healed and the wicked judged."14
The idea of the sun being drawn from its sheath means that a light far brighter than the sun will be applied. This would be the Ohr Ein Sof, the infinite light of awareness, which illuminates every corner of the universe and all the wisdom of creation.
Paradise is generally associated with the Garden of Eden. The lower Garden is paradise on earth, while the upper Garden is related to heaven. Descriptions rarely differentiate between the terrestrial and celestial Gardens. As the mystical approach to all of creation is that everything below has its reflection above, there may be no clear difference between the two.
The Garden is described in luscious terms, filled with spices, trees, angels, perfumes, precious metals and jewels. Of course, all righteous beings dwell here: great sages, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the well known biblical figures, scholars from all ages and the messiah. In the midst of this, God sits and explains the Torah.14
Paradise is viewed as being on the right side of God (loving kindness), while Gehinnom is on the left (justice). The midrash
asked what the distance was between the two. Rabbi Yohanan said the breadth of a wall; Rabbi Hanina said the breadth of a hand; but most of the rabbis generally agreed that the two were against one another.14
The relationship between opposites--Paradise and Gehinnom, right and left, good and evil, and so forth--is a key concept in Kabbalah.
The Zohar describes the revelation of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai as follows: "The Torah was manifested in black fire superimposed upon white fire, indicating that the 'right hand' clasped the 'left hand' so that the two might merge together."15
Our tendency is to think of right being separated from left, heaven being completely different from hell. We see that God is between them. Yet, ancient rabbis agreed that heaven and hell have a common boundary.
This common boundary is precisely where we stand each moment. Paradise and Gehinnom meet in the center of our being. We can reflect upon the past from either perspective, and our future depends upon the side toward which we turn for the choices we make. We are never more than a hair's breadth away from either heaven or hell.
Regarding the world to come, the mystics go one step further. They say that the Torah, which represents the mind of God, so to speak, was revealed as a handshake--black fire on white fire. When two hands clasp each other, the boundaries of each become blurred and we must look closely to determine which is which.
In the world as we know it, we seem to be able to differentiate between the opposites of left and right, or good and evil. The boundary between opposites is defined by both sides simultaneously. In the world to come, however, our perception will shift dramatically, and the handshake will become fully integrated.
Thus, just as the Garden of Eden is the starting point of human consciousness, is it also our destiny. Life eternal is a fundamental tenet of Jewish faith. It is life in the Garden, but not life as we know it because opposites will blend into one another, evil will no longer exist, and suffering will disappear.
Resurrection is one of the thirteen principles of faith proposed by Maimonides,15
and is the second benediction of the Amida in the daily prayers.15
It is said that if a person does not believe in the idea of resurrection, he or she will not have a portion in the world to come.15
Resurrection is a different idea from reincarnation. Reincarnation is the process of continual rebirth to redeem fallen sparks in the process of perfecting the creation. Resurrection is the heralding of a new era, a transformation into a consciousness previously unknown in which reality undergoes a profound change.
Although resurrection is a principle of faith in Judaism, we find a wide variety of conflicting viewpoints on what it means. There is general agreement on only one issue: the source of life cannot be thwarted by death. However, when resurrection occurs, how it happens and to whom are all points of contention. As a result, it is not surprising that Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism resolve the problem by discarding the notion of Gehinnom and of resurrection altogether.
Kabbalah, however, follows a different track of thought. As the root of all souls is Adam Ha-Rishon (earliest human awareness), resurrection represents the culmination of the rectification of holy sparks that have fallen, and have been returned to their original source.15
The Zohar reports: "Rabbi Abba said: 'All people will rise from the dead. God is the fountain of mercy. Since people in this world suffered, they will not suffer in the world to come.'"15
The Zohar also says, "After the resurrection of the dead the world will be perfectly renewed and will not have death."15
Life after the resurrection will not be like anything we can conceive. Yet the description of the Zohar is interesting. In our current reality, the body is a garment or a shell (kelippah) for the soul, which is viewed as a spark. In the world to come, the body will no longer be a shell for a spark, but will become the flame of that spark, enhancing it rather than confining it. The body will look like the one we see currently in our mirrors, yet it will be fully illuminated, like the glow of Moses as he came down from Mt. Sinai, when he was incandescent to the extent that he had to cover his face with a veil.15
Thus the Zohar says, "It is apparent that there will be a new creation from the one bone that remains intact [the luz bone], which never decays, and from which will expand the whole body."15
"Then God will cause the identical body and the identical soul to return to the world...and will cause the dew to descend upon them...the dew of lights; supernal light through which the Almighty will pour forth life upon the world."15
The luz bone is sometimes referred to as the "nut of the spinal column," a mysterious bone that rests at the base of the spine. The midrash says that it cannot be dissolved in water, burnt in fire, ground in a mill, or split with a hammer.16
Indeed, when someone attempted to smash a luz bone, the bone remained whole while the hammer and anvil split.16
Obviously, there is no physical entity in the body that is indestructible. Rather, the mystics suggest that there is a sustaining quality for each being that contains all of its codes. This mystical essence can be cloned any time in the future. We could describe it as an angel, an eternal bubble of energy, that retains the prototype of a particular being. It is from this energy bubble that the new body is ultimately resurrected.
As an aside, one of the primary reasons the rabbinic tradition does not allow for cremation is the concern that the luz bone will be lost in the process. However, as we see from the midrash, the luz bone cannot be burnt in fire. This is an issue of great concern for modern Jews whose parents or relatives choose to be cremated, as mine did. Reb Zalman points out that millions of people were involuntarily cremated in the holocaust, but we dare not say that they will be denied resurrection. In view of this reality, the Jewish laws regarding the issue of cremation need to be articulated with greater sensitivity.
DEATH HAS NEVER EXISTED
A modern Kabbalist said about resurrection, "This is the only level of consciousness which is completely beyond human experience: that of continually dying in the 'kiss' [of God] and being resurrected. In this final stage of creation, all reality will be reunited with God, not only the sparks but also the shells [bodies] of physical reality. Having died--the unrectified, natural ego being finally 'dead'--the soul will experience life as an eternal pulsation or oscillation of living/dying into God."16
This viewpoint is a perfect summary of the evolution of the kabbalistic perspective. Resurrection represents a new level of consciousness well outside the boundaries of human experience. In it, humans will not sense an ego barrier of separation but will be united in the totality of the universe. In this realm, we do not live and die as disconnected entities, but expand and contract as an extension of God, each of us representing an eternal pulse beat of the Divine.
The Zohar asks, "Is not a sinner dead even though alive?"16
In this context, sinner means those who have distanced themselves from God, which of course includes everyone but a handful of righteous beings. Thus we could read this question, "Are we not all dead even though we think we are alive?" What does it mean to be alive in this context? It means to be fully aware of the presence of God and to appreciate our role in the continuous unfolding of creation.
Solomon ibn Gabirol, an 11th century Jewish poet and philosopher, developed a contemplative system that leads to freedom from death.16
This approach was developed in his main philosophical work: Mekor Hayyim (Fountain of Life). The first step is to contemplate God and to live an ethical life so that the soul can attach itself to its source. From here the soul will rise in contemplation until it reaches the level of "first universal matter," the level of archetypes. Next, our contemplation leads to appreciation of the Will of God, which leads to the source: the Fountain of Life. When we fully connect with the Divine through contemplation, our communion with God releases us from death.16
As resurrection is in a timeless domain, it penetrates any reality limited by time and space. In other words, resurrection is not something for which we must "wait." It is always here. Our challenge is to move from ego consciousness to God consciousness. Creation-ing is the pulse of God-ing. No matter how far we have expanded outward from the Divine, we are still part of it.
This is the secret of resurrection and the reason the sages were so concerned about communicating it to us. Despite the limitations of language and concepts, the underlying principle that we constantly live in the presence of the Divine assures the certainty of resurrection. Each moment we are sustained in life as we know it, it is as if we were being raised from the dead. Our entire life is a perpetual experience of resurrection, if only we were able to perceive it in this way.
Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the foremost Kabbalists of this century, believed that death is imaginary. Our view of death is distorted because of our confused perception of reality. In time we will come to realize the full connotation the Hebrew words: Lo hayah mavet me-olam, which mean, "Death has never existed."16