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 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 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 dies.
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 purity
of the Bible.
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.
Daniel, in the only biblical verse to speak directly about the afterlife, teaches: "those who are wise shall rise like the radiance of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness, will be like the stars forever and ever." (Daniel 12:3).
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 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.
(Incidentally, about protecting the Name of God, to get this newsletter ready to publish, we go through it turning what was originally written L'rd and G'd into the words Lord and God, complete with their 'o's. We spell them incompletely because we don't want to dishonor them - even though they are only titles, not names - by giving a mere draft rough treatment.)
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).
The souls of the righteous are also likened to stars. Those who are wise shall shine like the radiance of the firmament; those who turn others to righteousness shall be like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:3).
Please treat this newsletter as a call to action. We call on God, as the prayer that Israel says every morning just before reciting the Hebrew statement of faith known as the shema asks (please understand that this is much richer in Hebrew than in English:)
Suppose you come from
the more than 99.75% of humanity which isn't Jewish.
You're a gentile, a noahide, one of the b'nai
no'ach, a non-Hebrew descendant of Noah. Let's suppose that
you've been around awhile. You might think that every single faith
and creed claims its way to be the best; if you don't follow their
way they claim that you're doomed. Then you encounter Israel's
common wisdom, that the righteous of every nation (and race, and
creed) are blessed.
You wonder what 'righteous' means. Israel explains that "only
he is righteous before God who is also good to man."
You may have heard that "love" is a concept foreign to the Old
Testament, as it's called. Then you encounter "You shall love
your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), "You shall love
the stranger" (Leviticus 19:34), "You shall love the Lord thy
God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy
might" (Deuteronomy 6:5), and, for instance, "Love covers all
transgressions" (Proverbs 10:12).
Someone may have told you that Israel's God - the God of the Old
Testament - is bloodthirsty and angry. Then you see from the Old
Testament itself that He is "merciful and gracious, long-suffering,
and abundant in loving-kindness and truth" (Exodus 34:6), that
He gives 500 times more good to the world than bad (as one sees
in the next line in Exodus), that He "delights in mercy" (Micah
7:18), that "He does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children
of men" (Lamentations 3:33). And you find that, far from exalting
war or bloodshed, the God of this Bible loves peace: "Seek peace,
and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15).
You may think that this Old Testament God is hard and unforgiving.
But this is the same God Who teaches, "Return to Me and I will
return to you" (Zechariah 1:3), Whose prophets say "Let the wicked
forsake his way and return to the Lord" (Isaiah 55:6), and, for
instance, "Turn us to Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned" (Lamentations
You probably heard that Old Testament religion, as you think of
it, or Torah, teaches that all our souls are impure from the beginning.
We're born sinners, supposedly: without miraculous or special
grace, we're doomed to live our lives as abandoned sinners (due
to the sins of the Bible's Adam and Eve). Then you happen upon
Israel's start-every-day-off prayer, which directly addresses
God Himself, declaring "My God, the soul you placed within me
You may have heard - some people say this, some
have heard it - that the Old Testament was written by male chauvanists
and that God, the God of Israel, doesn't hear the prayers of a
woman. But, looking at that same set of morning prayers, you see
the division between prayers for women and girls and for men and
boys. Along with all the other prayers that apply to both genders,
men declare their appreciation for being men (recognizing, ideally,
that they need more direction than women do to heighten their
awareness of God), while a woman expresses her appreciation for
being a woman, thanking God for "having made me according to Thy
People often criticize Israel for denying the concept of an afterlife.
This is incredibly odd - that same start-every-day-off prayer
speaks to God about one's soul, "You created it, You fashioned
it, You breathed it into me, You safeguard it within me, and eventually
You will take it from me, and restore it to me in the future -
and very hard for some of us to believe, that anyone should say
this about Judaism, but this idea is very common.
One scholar writes, for instance: "The notion of the soul as an
immortal entity which enters the body at birth and leaves it at
death is quite foreign to the biblical view of man" (De Silva,
1979, The Problem of Self in Buddhism and Christianity).
Many a Christian has stated with perfect confidence that any Jew
who claims that the Torah speaks of the immortality of the human
soul is either lying or mistaken.
It's true that, with the possible exception of old King Saul's
tormented "vision" of the deceased prophet Samuel, connected with
the Witch of Endor (2 Kings 2:12), there are no "soul-sightings"
in the Old Testament, while there are quite a few in the Christian
Scriptures and the Koran. But, in fact, the Bible tells us that
death is not so simple. It teaches that it's impossible for us
to fully visualize what happens to the various eternal, immortal
aspects of mortal man. The afterlife is multi-layered. Somehow,
in ways that we can't know, it's intertwined with all existence.
So, much as the Torah teaches that any image that one has in the
mind's eye of God is false, what happens to the soul after death
can't be correctly visualized.
What faith, book or movement has been
maligned as much or often as the religion of Israel, the Bible,
and the cause of Israel on earth?
People often complain about the Old Testament's "savagery." They
egregiously misinterpret God's famous commandment to pursue proportional
justice, "an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:24). What the Bible really
means, of course, is the value of an eye for a lost or damaged
eye. This has always been God's Law; it's not some cleaned-up
version of the original. This is where the law (which came into
the world more than 3,200 years ago, long before Christianity
or even the philosophers of ancient Greece) of compensatory monetary
damages comes from. With all their laws, the ancient Babylonians
had nothing like it. This is the legal principle of damages, of
a legally binding debt due for causing someone injury. The party
in the wrong pays damages to help make the injured person whole.
It's connected to the obligation, the Torah obligation, to pay
that person's doctors' bill if necessary (Exodus 21:19).
Maybe we can address and try to debunk other false ideas and baseless
accusations like this in next month's issue.
We could speak, for instance, of the "scholarly"
treatment of the Five Books of Moses as a gigantic hoax.
Current academic orthodoxy holds that each of the Five Books is
a collection of different books, the E, J, D and P versions, which
express an "evolving" man-made understanding of God.
It insists, just as if there were credible evidence
for it or a genuinely consistent argument to be made, that somewhere
during the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, a marvelous
Redactor, a miracle-working editor or possibly successive teams
of editors, all secretly united in the cause of fraud, assembled
all the different books together and foisted them upon the whole
nation as something old and holy. This theory, called Biblical
Criticism, deserves some criticizing itself. But that's
for another newsletter.
Let us know, please, if you like this feature, First Covenant Covenant Connection trying to briefly recount
and puncture wrong ideas. Every question may not be answered,
or published, but please feel free to submit your questions.
In a previous newsletter, the March issue, we
recalled the strange story of the notorious forgery, The Protocols
of the Learned Elders of Zion, which incited both Russian
pogromists and Germany's Nazis to give their all to the "holy
cause" of exterminating the world's Jews. Today the Protocols
are still working their magic in Arab and Muslim countries. They
are a perennial best-seller even on American college campuses.
What is it with the Jews? One of the things that seems to puzzle
people most about the Bible and the Biblical system, as well as
the world as a whole, is the role of the Jews in it. Please read
Larry Rogers, who created
the First Covenant Foundation's logo and then donated it to us,
has written an interesting article on anti-Semitism.
We have posted it on our website under Articles.
One appreciates that the Bible is a Jewish work, written by Jews
(with God's help, or His special ru'ach in the form of
prophecy) primarily, originally, for Jews. It's also mostly about
Jews. Not just the Torah - in the most narrow sense of the term,
the Five Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy - but the
prophets and the psalms too speak almost constantly of Israel.
Why? What's so special about the Hebrews?
Israel itself often loses track of this truth,
but God created the Jewish people as a nation as His instrument,
as a force in the world. See Exodus 4:22: "Israel
is My son, My first-born, says the Lord" (Exodus 4:22).God
so loves humankind that He made and sustains the Jews as a people
for the good of the whole species. He so loves humankind that
he gave His only begotten first-born child (Exodus, above) over,
to achieve and often suffer - God's "suffering servant" isn't
just one Jewish man, Jesus, it's Jesus' people, Israel as a whole
(Isaiah 51-54) - to help save the world and uplift us all. The
Jewish people, the people of Israel, turbo-charge human history.
The Bible declares that God will bless those
who bless the people of Israel and curse those who curse them
(Genesis 12:3, 27:29). Individually, the Jews are just people.
But collectively, in the words of John Adams, one of America's
greatest founding fathers, the second president:
The Hebrews have done more to civilize men than
any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind
eternal fate, I should still believe that the fate had ordained
the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the
nations. (Letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, February 1809. We have
much more on this in The Rainbow Covenant; Torah and the Seven
Universal Laws, the book. Also, for more about President
Adams' thoughts, go to the First Covenant Foundation website's
Central to Israel's civilizing mission is the transmission of
the Noahide Law, the central laws and values of the Torah. A noahide
or non-Jew who keeps those laws is, as the Torah itself teaches,
as good as a High Priest of Israel, a morally, spiritually extremely refined person.
Such a person is often called a ger in the Bible's Hebrew,
a sojourner or stranger. Frances
Makarova, who is also called Rachav, recently submitted a
deep-thinking, very interesting treatise on just what a ger is.
It's up on the website under Articles, to read it, click on the
link just below:
By Michael Dallen
God gave the Torah to the Jewish People so that all nations might benefit from it. – Midrash Tanchuma (ancient rabbinic commentary), Devarim 3
We call on God for help. As the prayer that Israel says every morning just before reciting the Hebrew statement of faith known as the shema asks (please understand that this is much richer in Hebrew than in English): Our Father, the merciful Father, Who acts mercifully, have mercy on us, instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teachings with love. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. Amen.
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