What Happens to Us After We Die?
We are challenged to reflect upon death when we read parashat Hukkat/Balak. Our double parashah begins with the elaborate purification ritual for one who has come into contact with a corpse; it ends with Pinchas’ zealous killing of an Israelite man and Midianite woman; and in the middle we learn about the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron. As we confront mortality throughout our Torah reading, it is natural to question Jewish views of the afterlife – a topic which has been the subject of many books of late.
What happens to us after we die? The great spectrum of Jewish answers to this question testifies to the evolution of ideas and the creativity of Jewish thought throughout the ages. Our parashah provides a powerful clue for understanding the biblical perspective on death. The intricate ritual of the red heifer underscores the biblical view that death marks not only the final end of life, but also the end of our relationship with God. As Psalm 115 proclaims: The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence (v. 17). Death was considered to be the antithesis of the God of Life. Thus, the purity laws separated the symbolic forces of death from God’s holy residence. When we confront our own mortality by coming into contact with a corpse, we must fulfill a process of reclaiming life and re-entering a relationship with the ultimate Source of Life.
Death as the final descent into a dark silence apart from God is but one of the Jewish views of the afterlife. In the Second Temple, rabbinic, medieval, mystical and modern periods, Jews have celebrated the notion of life after death in many ways – including the concepts of bodily resurrection, the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. In fact, rabbis have often sought roots within the biblical text itself for their views of the afterlife. An example from this week’s parashah is found in the expression for Aaron’s impending death – ye’asef el amav — to be “gathered to his kin” (Num. 20:24). Variations of this expression are used to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Medieval Torah commentators understood this expression to refer to the journey of the immortal soul. The interpretation of the Ralbag (Provence, 1288-1344) is a good example:
The expression [“to be gathered to his kin”] is connected with the soul, for while it is in the body it is, as it were, in isolation; when the soul leaves the body, it rejoins its Source and is gathered back to its glory (comment on Gen. 25:8).
The survival of the soul is an important aspect of Jewish theology from the rabbinic period to the present. Exactly what happens to us after we die is a mystery. However, as Rabbi Neil Gillman argues in his profound work, The Death of Death, what we believe about the afterlife affects the way that we live in the here-and-now. May the focus on death in this week’s parashah inspire our own explorations of this central issue in Jewish theology. Four good books for summer reading are Neil Gillman’s The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Elie Spitz’s Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives and Living with Purpose, Simcha Paull Raphael’s Jewish Views of the Afterlife, and David Kraemer’s The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.