Life After Death
This article is based on Ethan Dor-Shov’s amazing Soul of Fire, a Theory of Biblical Man. We first read it in the Fall 2005/Autumn 5766 edition of Azure magazine (of blessed memory) and published a Covenant Connection summary soon after. After a recent slew of friends’ and loved ones’ encounters with the Malach HaMahvas – the Angel of Death - we updated it.
Other works by Ethan Dor-Shov: click here Hebrew Dictionary - Metaphysics
What Happens When You Die? What is the Essence of a Human Being?
Life in this world deserves the full-time attention of the living. It helps a lot that the Torah brings everything into context: the immortality of the soul, or life after death.
"Man goes to his eternal home" at the moment of death (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Koheleth [the speaker] describes what happens at the passing:
"The silver cord snaps and the golden globe is released. And the pitcher breaks at the fountain, and the wheel is released into the pit, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who granted it."
Let’s track this:
1) The dust returns to the earth as it was. Every living being is constituted of “earth” and naturally returns to it. Man included. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). He tells us: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (3:19).
But human beings are more than mere animated stardust.
2) The person's spirit - in Hebrew, ru'ach - or "wind," is of God. And it, Koheleth explains, returns to God. It's part of God's treasury, a huge collection of spirit and awareness. When “the spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), that’s God’s ru’ach. And if you’re one of His creatures, if you have lungs and breathe with them, you have ru'ach.
A. Fish and bugs have no ru'ach. Which is one reason why God didn't command Noah to collect them – all He needed on the Ark were ru'ach creatures (Genesis 7:15).
Take away the ru’ach from a creature and it dies (Psalm 104:30). So, to Koheleth, there’s not that much difference between humans and animals because, after all, we’re all ru'ach creatures (Ecclesiastes 3:19).
As yoga and teachers of meditation know, self-awareness and consciousness are connected to breath. And, like breathing, ru’ach, including self-awareness and consciousness, can, to some extent, be consciously controlled.
B. Self-awareness and consciousness. From here come the ability to dream and many of our likes and dislikes, our personal tastes. Ru’ach gives us our social selves, our personas, including the power to relate to our fellow creatures, as well as to ourselves.
Even prophecy, the very highest level of ru'ach, serves a social purpose: one who receives the ru'ach of the Lord must act upon it, to do justice and convey the truth to others. This is sharing the the spirit or ru'ach, in other words.
This means ru'ach can be transferred. We see that when Elisha asks his retiring mentor Elijah (Eliyahu) for a "double portion" of his ru'ach (2 Kings 2:9). So we see in Ecclesiastes how the “wind” or ru’ach returns to God Who gave it. Parents receive ru'ach from their parents and can give of their ru'ach to their children. God Himself, as we see, may take someone's ru'ach and give it to someone else - as He took of Moses' ru'ach (without diminishing Moses') and gave it to the seventy elders (Numbers 11:25), or as He dealt wih King Saul, removing the special ru'ach that He had earlier given him the king from the king (1 Samuel 16:14).
Ru'ach may be given only for a moment, as Samson received a burst of extra strength and bravery when the "ru'ach from the Lord came mightily upon Him" (Judges 14:6).
3) “The pitcher breaks at the fountain.” Pitcher and fountain imply liquid. A wheel is a circle, a self-enclosed baggy space, a little world unto itself, like an individual's self-awareness. Pierced or broken, its contents - whatever is within the circle - are released. When that happens, it spills into a pit.
Here, the English word "pit" is the translation of the Hebrew "bor," which is a water-well, a reservoir or cistern under the earth.
Liquid's nature is to flow, following the path of least resistance, usually downwards. And the pit here is a watery or liquid place or realm under the earth.
This reflects the ancient Hebrew concept of underground waters, the tihom, a subterranean sphere of being, dark, quiet and liquid: “the deeps,” of Noah’s Flood’s waters.
3) A. Besides the “windy” part of the human soul, the ru’ach, part of the soul – in Torah thought - is liquid. This is known, in Hebrew, as a nefesh. This is most of a person’s life force.
Every living being, both animal and human, has a nefesh. Leviticus (24:17-18) tells us that one who murders a human nefesh deserves death. And one who wrongly kills an animal nefesh - an animal belonging to someone else - shall pay restitution. A righteous man regards the nefesh of his animal (Proverbs 12:10)
Man or animal, when the body dies, the nefesh departs.
The Bible makes it clear that the nefesh is liquid, like water. "He poured out his nefesh to death," (Isaiah 53:12); "My nefesh leaks away out of sorrow," (Psalm 119:38); "as water spilled on the ground which cannot be re-gathered, God does not spare any nefesh." (2 Samuel 14:14).
So Ecclesiastes is saying that at the moment of death the nefesh flows downwards. It flows into the bor or pit or well and then down to the tehom, the realm of subterranean water. This is the underworld. Within it lies sheol.
4) Sheol, often translated as "grave," is more than just the body's tomb or resting place. Sheol is the netherworld, where each soul – a portion of the soul, the watery part - rests, floating, asleep, in quiet liquid darkness.
Isaiah speaks to each of us, every human being: "You shall be brought down to the nether-world (sheol), to the uttermost parts of the pit (bor)." (Isaiah 14:15). Even the proudest and pompous amongst us end up in sheol.
Some Bible translations call this netherworld "Hades," but that’s misleading. Hades = Hell in Noachide mythic thought, but sheol, even though it’s the netherworld, is no Hell or Hell-equivalent. Besides, since Hades is actually a pagan Greek deity, that's injecting a ludicrous false god, an idol, into the fiercely monotheistic pure narrative of the Bible.
"The way of life goes upward for the wise [person], that he may depart from the grave (sheol) beneath."
5) Earth, air, water - what about fire? What about the golden globe, when the silver cord snaps?
A. Gold stands for fire, light and sunshine. The fiery aspect of the human soul – besides the windy ru’ach, and besides the watery nefesh - is the neshama.
The Hebrew word for fire, aish, lies at the root of neshama. And also in the word for sun, shemesh. When "the silver cord snaps" the neshama breaks free from its worldly link.
Since it is the nature of fire to rise - as it is the nature of water to flow downwards - when the neshama, the fiery core of the human being, the fiery part of the soul, breaks free in death, it rises. It goes up like the sun, the neshama like a shemesh, to shemayim, Heaven.
5) A. Shemayim includes the root word shem, name, but also the roots aish, fire, and shemesh, sun. Which combine with mayim: “water.” Which, as you can see from the last two letters, im - Hebrew’s principal method for expressing plurality, or mulitiplicity - is plural. In Hebrew water is, literally, “waters.”
B. Heaven, where the neshama goes, literally combines fire – aish - and waters, mayim.
6) Stars are suns: golden globes of fire. Sun and light are heavenly: "The Lord shall be unto you an everlasting light." (Isaiah 60:19); "the sun of righteousness shall arise for you who fear My Name [God's Name]." (Malachi 3:20). The neshama rises beyond the sun, “up” all the way to the Divine eternal light of God.
Besides being fiery, a source of light, and tending always to rise, the neshama is also the "speaking-soul," connected to human speech. Check this out in the very last verse of Psalms, which calls for everyone - all neshamas everywhere - to chant God's praise.
Let every thing that has breath [neshama] praise Yah [a Divine name]. Hallelujah [“Praise Yah”]
(By the way, this is the finish, the very last thought, of the Book of Psalms.)
A. Neshama also connects at an even deeper level with the concept of “name.” The Hebrew word for name, shem, along with aish, fire, are the roots of neshama.
Soul of Fire
7) HaShem, literally, the Name, the Author of all things, is one of the holy names of the Eternal, the Lord God. HaShem, pronounced that way, stands for the four-letter Name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable, never vocally articulated Y,H,V,H four-letter proper Name. The Rabbis teach that man should pronounce it as Adonoi (my Lord) or Adoneinu (our Lord). Or, of course, HaShem.
A. Hashem knows all the stars – each shemesh – by its name, its shem (Psalm 147:4). As for shemayim, Heaven, the interstellar destination of the neshama, the fiery soul, HaShem knows each one’s name or shem as well, and you can see that Heaven, shemayim, and one’s name – the name or identity that one achieves in life – or shem are very closely connected.
As each star or shemesh has its own shem; it’s own name, known to God - Who, it goes without saying, knows everything about it – so does each person. As He knows each star, He knows each person.
B. Name means identity. "As is His name so is he" (1 Samuel 25:25). The neshama, the fiery “speaking soul,” is the means by which we create our own identities or "names." HaShem “writes them – the shem of each neshama – in His “book,” we say: in His never-failing memory or store of thoughts.
C. The Hebrew concept of name involves the realization of potential. One's "name" is one's distilled essence; what one does and thinks, accomplishes and becomes in the world of the living. One's name comes about from the interaction of all our inherent components - the nefesh and ru’ach and physical body and neshama - with the world as we encounter it.
D. Ultimately, our names are as eternal as the stars: God knows us by our names; eternal life is the due of everyone whose "name is written in His book." Because God’s memory is never-failing we live forever. Because God knows our names we can expect to be delivered.
God’s Coming Name
8) God Himself has a name – with His potential not yet realized, it’s not yet complete. Israel's famous "mourner's prayer, "kaddish," speaks about its coming completion.
9) Kaddish – signifying “holy,” in Aramaic, related to kadosh, “holy,” in Hebrew - is recited when a person dies and in memorial. When you watch a war movie and the Jewish soldiers are chanting over the honored dead, the words they’re chanting are kaddish. Kaddish lend meaning to death and offer the mourner solace. It’s remarkable that it doesn't mention eternal life or souls at all. It doesn’t refer even once to the soul whose current absence from the planet's surface is being mourned.
"Magnified and sanctified be God's great Name."
A. Recited in Aramaic, which is also the main language of the Talmud, a language even more challenging and tooth-breaking than Hebrew, and the everyday language of the Jews in ancient Babylon after about 600 BCE (after the destruction of the First Temple and Israel’s exile back where Abraham had come from), kaddish emphasizes the current incompleteness of God's Name. God’s great Name shall become and will be, in the future, magnified and sanctified much more.
B. The soul of the departed, the neshama, having come from God's heavenly throne in the first place, has now returned to shemayim, Heaven, to reunite with its Source. It’s like a heavily freighted spark, partly realized and fulfilled by its time on earth, then purified through death.
i. The fiery soul, the neshama, adds what it's gained in life to the glory of His – God’s - Name. It becomes, in a sense, part of Heaven.
C. God says that, when the time is ripe, "I will magnify and sanctify Myself" (Ezekiel 38:23).
“I will magnify Myself, and sanctify Myself, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations; and they shall know that I am HaShem [the LORD].”
D. One’s identity, one’s “name” or shem, and one’s soul, one’s neshama – the name and soul of the departed - is linked to that process.
To sum up: the real main point of kaddish is that, only when "the Lord will be one and His name will be one," as the prophet Zechariah put it (Zechariah 14:9), will the Name of the LORD, along with all the purified neshamas - the "names" and souls - of the departed, become properly regarded, magnified, and sanctified.
By Michael Dallen
May You be blessed, Y,H,V,H our God, beyond the praises
of Your handiwork, and beyond the bright luminaries that
You have made – may they glorify You – Selah!
- Siddur, Hebrew Daily Prayer
“May His great Name be blessed forever and ever: blessed, praised, glorified, exalted and uplifted, honored and elevated and extolled be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation, that are uttered in the world.”
- From Kaddish