Eternal Life/Soul of Fire
This article is based on an amazing work by our friend Ethan Dor-Shov, Soul of Fire, a Theory of Biblical Man in the Fall 2005/Autumn 5766 edition of Azure magazine. What you see here is just an attempt to condense the orginal, which really ought to be read in full.
Other works by Ethan Dor-Shov: click here Hebrew Dictionary - Metaphysics
By Michael Dallen (based on Ethan Dor-Shov's Soul of Fire)
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. But the Torah - the biblical "Guidance" or "Teaching" from Sinai, the Way, the Hebrew Scriptural tradition - speaks directly to this: to the immortality of the soul, of life after death.
Look at Ecclesiastes - in the original Hebrew, Koheleth, from the opening sentence, "The words of Koheleth, son of David, king in Jerusalem". Koheleth focuses particularly strongly on this towards the end, in the final chapter. "Man goes to his eternal home" at the moment of death (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Koheleth 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." (Ecclesiastes 12:6)
The dust returns to the earth as it was. Every living body, the tissue, blood and bone, is of earth and it naturally returns to Earth. As the Earth, a planet, is made of the same material as the stars - star dust - so is every individual being on it, animal and human. But human beings are more than mere animated stardust. The person's spirit - in Hebrew, ru'ach - or "wind," is of God. It returns to Him, Koheleth says. It's part of God's treasury, a vast collection of awareness or spirit.
Every being that breathes with lungs has a ru'ach. Fish and bugs have no ru'ach, as the Bible makes clear: God didn't command Noah to collect them but only creatures in which there is a ru'ach (Genesis 7:15). Take away a creature's ru'ach and it dies (Psalm 104:30). Ecclesiastes or Koheleth doesn't find much difference between humans and animals because, after all, we all share ru'ach (Ecclesiastes 3:19). This is the quality that gives us self-awareness and consciousness. These things, as people who practice meditation know, are connected to breath. Like one's breathing, ru'ach can, to some extent, be consciously controlled.
Ru'ach gives us the ability to dream and many of our likes and dislikes, our personal tastes. Most of all, it gives us our social selves, our personas, including the power to relate to our fellow creatures as well as 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. So ru'ach can be transferred. We see that when Elisha asks of Elijah/Eliyahu for a "double portion" of Eliyahu's ru'ach (2 Kings 2:9). This helps explain the nature of Koheleth's returning wind. Parents receive ru'ach from their parents and can give of their ru'ach to their children; God Himself 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 removed His special ru'ach from King Saul (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).
Koheleth's pitcher and the fountain - this implies something liquid. A wheel is a circle, a self-enclosed space, a little world unto itself, like an individual's self-awareness. Pierced or broken, its contents - whatever is within it - are released; they spill out into a pit. 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. It follows the path of least resistance to flow downwards. The pit in this case is a watery place or realm beneath the earth. This reflects the ancient Hebrew concept of underground waters, the tihom, a subterranean sphere of being, dark, quiet and liquid.
Part of the soul is liquid. This is known, in Hebrew, as a nefesh. Every living being, both animal and human, has a nefesh. The Bible in 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. Man or animal, when the body dies the nefesh leaves.
The Bible's language, the words it uses about the nefesh, tell us that the nefesh is somehow liquid. "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).
According to Koheleth, 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 which lies sheol. Often translated as "grave," sheol is more than just the body's resting place or tomb. Sheol is the Bible's underworld. This netherworld, apparently, is where each soul or some part of the soul rests, floating asleep in quiet liquid darkness.
Even the proudest beings die, as Isaiah teaches. He speaks directly to the proudest and most pompous among us: "You shall be brought down to the nether-world (sheol), to the uttermost parts of the pit (bor)." (Isaiah 14:15).
Some translations of the Bible actually call the netherworld, sheol, "Hades." [One tends not to capitalize the Hebrew place name, unlike the Greek name, since Hebrew doesn't use two cases, capitals and small letters.] Since Hades is a pagan Greek deity, that's interjecting a false god, an idol, into the God-conscious purity of the Bible.
"The way of life goes upward for the wise [person], that he may depart from the grave (sheol) beneath." - Proverbs 15:24
Earth, air, water - what about fire? What about the gold globe? Gold stands for fire, light and sunshine. The fiery aspect of the human soul is the neshama. The Hebrew word for fire, aish, forms part of the root of neshama. When "the silver cord snaps" the neshama breaks free of its worldly link. 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.
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 up to the eternal, divine light of God.
Besides being fiery and a source of light and tending always to rise, the neshama is also the "speaking-soul," connected to human speech, as the very last verse of Psalms calls for everyone - all neshamas everywhere - to chant God's praise. But it's also connected, at an even deeper level, with the concept of name. The Hebrew word for name, shem, forms most of the root of neshama. We call God HaShem - literally, the Name, referring to the ineffable, never vocally articulated four letter proper name of God.
HaShem and shemayim, the Hebrew word for heaven, share the same root. We also know, because the Bible tells us, that God calls all the fiery, light-giving stars of heaven by their names (Psalm 147:4). So we can speculate that the heavenly, starry destination of the fiery soul, shemayim, which includes the "name" or identity, the shem, that one achieves in life, are all integrally connected.
Name means identity. "As is His name so is he" (1 Samuel 25:25). The neshama is the means by which we create our own identities or "names." God writes them in His "book." The Hebrew concept of name connotes 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 results because of the interaction of all our inherent components, the nefesh and ruach and body and neshama. 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 knows our names we can expect to be delivered.
God Himself has a name. Israel's famous "mourner's prayer, "kaddish," speaks about its coming completion. Kaddish is recited to lend meaning to death and offer the mourner solace, but it doesn't mention eternal life or souls at all, not even the soul whose current absence from the planet's surface is being mourned.
"Magnified and sanctified be God's great Name." Recited in tooth-breaking Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews in Babylon, kaddish mourns the current incompleteness of God's Name. The soul of the departed, the neshamah, or "name," having come from God's heavenly throne in the first place, has now returned to heaven to reunite with its Source. Like a heavily freighted spark, partly realized and fulfilled by its time on earth and purified through death, it adds what it's gained in life to the glory of His Name. It becomes, in a sense, part of Heaven. God says that, when the time is ripe, "I will magnify and sanctify Myself" (Ezekiel 28:33). The identity, the "name" or neshamah of the departed, is linked to that process. Only when "the Lord will be one and His name will be one" (Zechariah 14:9), will His Name, along with the purified neshamas - the "names" - of the departed, become properly regarded, magnified and sanctified.