It is written: “Thus the dust returns to the earth, as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The classical commentator, Metzudas David, explains that when the human soul leaves the body, it returns to its Divine Source.
In our previous letter, we mentioned the “World of the Souls” – the sphere that the soul enters after it leaves the body. Our tradition often refers to this blissful sphere as the “Garden of Eden” – a term which appears in the following prayer on behalf of the souls of the departed:
“May their souls be bound in the Bond of Life, together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.” (Yizkor)
In this blissful sphere, there is an ingathering of souls, and our tradition finds an allusion to this ingathering in the following verses regarding the passing of our father, Abraham:
“Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Efron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.” (Genesis 25:8,9)
The Torah describes the passing of Abraham as being “gathered to his people.” What does the phrase “gathered to his people” mean? It cannot be referring to the idea that he was buried together with his ancestors, for Abraham’s ancestors were buried in another land! In addition, the phrase “gathered to his people” appears “before” the mention of his burial; moreover, when this phrase appears elsewhere in the Torah, it appears before the mention of any burial. Our tradition therefore understands the words “gathered to his people” to be referring to the departed soul being ingathered among the souls of those who have already left this physical world (commentary of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch). This is why the classical commentator, Sforno, explains the words “gathered to his people” in the following manner: “He was gathered into the bond of eternal life together with the righteous of all generations who, being like him in that respect, were his people.”
Although our Sacred Scriptures focus on our spiritual task in “this” world, the above teachings remind us that there are some references and allusions within our Sacred Scriptures to the World of the Souls. In addition, there are some references and allusions in our Sacred Scriptures to the World of the Resurrection, when the soul is reunited with the body. The following are a few examples:
1. Moses, in his parting song to our people, proclaimed the following Divine message: “I put to death, and I restore to life, I have inflicted wounds and I will heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
2. During a prophetic vision, the Prophet Isaiah prayed to the Compassionate One: “May Your dead come to life, may my corpses arise. Awake and shout for joy, you who rest in the dirt” (Isaiah 26:19).
3. “Many of those who sleep in the dusty earth shall awaken... The wise will shine like the radiance of the firmament, and those who teach righteousness to the multitudes will shine like the stars, forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2,3)
May we indeed merit through our words and deeds to shine like the stars, forever and ever.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following relevant teachings are based on various explanations of the World to Come and related concepts which are found in the ArtScroll translation of the Talmud (Appendix to Sanhedrin, Vol. 3):
1. When the soul leaves the body, it enters the “World of the Souls” which will be followed by the soul entering the “World of the Resurrection” – the age when the soul will be reunited with the body on earth. There are however, disagreements among our sages regarding the exact order and details of this journey to eternal life. In our series, we have followed the view of Ramban (Nachmanides) and many other early authorities on the Talmud who maintain that this state of reunification with the body will last forever; thus, it is the final stage and goal of our journey. Rambam (Maimonides), however, maintains that the World of the Resurrection will not last forever, for body and soul will again separate, with the souls returning to the World of the Souls.
2. In our series, we have cited the view of those commentators who state that the Resurrection will take place at the end of the Messianic era; however, there is also a view that it will take place when the Messianic era arrives. Many commentators assert that both views are true, as they explain that the Resurrection of the Dead will occur in two stages. With the arrival of the Messianic redemption, the completely righteous will be resurrected, and later on, there will be the general Resurrection.
3. In our previous letter, we cited the view that the term Olam Haba – World to Come – can refer to both the World of the Souls and the World of the Resurrection; however, according to Ramban and many other early authorities, the term Olam Haba refers primarily to the era of the Resurrection. They teach that in this era – when the soul will be reunited with the body on earth – the body will be purified and on a higher level without the normal physical needs; thus, the body will be sustained through spiritual nourishment, similar to the manner in which Moses was sustained on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights without food and drink (see Deuteronomy 9:9). This is why the Talmud states, “In the World to Come there is no eating and drinking”; moreover, the righteous in the World to Come will “delight in the radiance of the Shechinah” (Brochos 17a).
Ramban discusses the World to Come in Shaar HaGemul, which is part of his larger work, Toras HaAdam.
4. It is written: “The secret things belong to Hashem, our God, but that which has been revealed is ours and our children’s forever: To carry out all the words of this Teaching” (Deut 29:28). In one of his essays, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reminds us that the exact order and details of the World to Come and the Resurrection are secrets of Hashem which are now concealed from us, thus, it is sufficient for us to focus on the general truth of the matter. And he writes:
“The Holy One, Blessed is He, did not make a covenant with us concerning hidden matters, but only concerning what is revealed to us – to heed and fulfill His Torah (Deut. 29:28). And he has assured us that we do not require for its fulfillment knowledge of matters distant from us in the heavens or in the far reaches of the sea, but only what is in our mouth and heart to fulfill them (see Deuteronomy 30:11-14).”
The above comments of Rabbi Hirsch appear in: Responsum of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, printed in HaMayan, Teves 5715; vol. 16, number 2.
4. For information on the ArtScroll edition of the Talmud, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/home