Rav Yakov Nagen
Ram at Otniel Hesder Yeshiva
The Eternal Life in This World
The Days Don’t Pass
Each encounter with death emboldens the notion that death is infinite and eternal, leaving man to contemplate the temporal and finite nature of life. These feelings could lead one to belittle this world, based on the assumption that this world is merely a stepping stone to true life, the life that comes after death.
The Zohar on Parshat Vayechei, through discussing Yaakov’s death, reveals the secret of eternal life. Eternal life, according to the Zohar, is attained through this world. No, the Zohar is not referring to some form of magic, a la “the sorcerer’s stone” from the Harry Potter series, that has the power to grant longevity. Even supernatural longevity, the Zohar says, cannot overcome death, for even if a person lived a thousand years, upon reaching his dying day, he would feel as though he had lived but one day (Zohar Vayechi 223b). The Zohar teaches that we can attain eternal life here in this world. The secret to attaining eternal life is not in how many years a man lives, but in how he conducts his life:
Rebbe Yose says… It is not written, “And the days of Yisroel’s death neared,” rather “days” (Bereishit 47:29). On how many days does one man die? In one hour, in one moment, man dies and leaves this world. Rather we learn as follows: When God wants to return to Himself the spirit, all the days that the man lived in this world are counted before Him… Praiseworthy is the man whose days come before The King without embarrassment and not a single day is cast aside. (Zohar Vayechi 221b-22a)
The Zohar opens with a question: Why does the verse say “days,” plural, as opposed to the singular “day,” for the moment of death transpires on just one day? It answers that the Torah is not dealing with the date of death, but with what happens at the time of death (which is gently described as the time that God returns man’s spirit). When one ascends to the heavens, each and every day of his life goes up with him. This means that the days we live in this world – for better and for worse – don’t disappear as we generally think, but each day along with the unique meaning that man gives it, accompanies him forever. To a certain extent, this outlook is also actualized in this world. Each individual is who he is on account of the life-story he has written, for the experiences he has made, and the actions he has taken. Therefore, even if he does not remember what occurred in the past or if he is unaware of what has happened in his life, these life-events are still engrained in his body and soul. The Zohar’s insight is not only true on the psychological level. Days hold enduring meaning, and the Zohar goes so far as to define the relationship between the days and man’s identity. According to Judaism, each person has a neshama, a soul, that is his internal essence. The neshama is eternal; it existed before the person was born and continues on after he dies. Mary Russell once mused how contemplating a human corpse and experiencing the void of life is the greatest proof that living man has a soul (Mary Russell, Children of God, New York 1998, pg. 400).
The Zohar tries to understand the meaning of the stage in which the soul descends into this world, meaning the difference between the state of the neshama before it enters this world, as opposed to after it leaves this world. The Zohar grapples with the age-old question: What is the meaning of life? Many approaches are based on the concept of reward and punishment, meaning that whoever chooses good in this world will be rewarded, while those who choose evil will be punished. The Zohar proposes a more dynamic approach. The days that pass turn into eternal “garments” to man’s soul. Although the neshama is the internal essence, life in this world is its practical expression. Therefore, life is likened to a garment, for through his garments man expresses himself. The Zohar teaches that after the physical body disappears, the spiritual identity that man formed for himself over the course of his life adorns his soul. It follows that life in this world is eternal in the sense that man’s eternal identity is comprised of all the days he lived, and they accompany him eternally. The body disintegrates, but man’s true identity is determined by his inner essence and the way in which he lived his life.
The Body, the Soul and What is Between Them
The Zohar proposes a new perspective from which to address the difficult questions each individual must ultimately ask himself: What is man? Who am I? There are those who say that man is body and soul. There are spiritual outlooks – mostly eastern – that try to free man from the constraints of the physical world in order to reach the inner soul. The Zohar claims that man is not the coming together of body and soul, but the union of soul and life. The body eventual disintegrates, but life – in the sense we mentioned earlier – is eternal.
This outlook on life after death returns us to the ideas of “Doing” and “Being.” While “Being” is represented by the neshama, by the inner reality, “Doing” is everyman’s personal narrative. This insight can help resolve a paradox brought down in Pirkei Avot:
Rebbe Yaakov says this world is like a corridor to the next world. Fix yourself in the corridor in order that you can enter into the palace. He would say greater is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entirety of the world to come, and greater is one hour of bliss in the next world than all of this world. (Avot 4:16-17)
In the beginning of the mishna it sounds as though Rebbe Yaakov wants to negate the inherent significance of life. This world is only a means to achieve true meaning in the future, in the next world, in which a single hour of bliss is greater than the entirety of this world. However, immediately afterwards, he asserts that the corridor, in fact, holds more importance than the palace itself: “Greater is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entirety of the world to come.”
According to Rebbe Yaakov, despite the fact that in certain regards the world to come is exalted beyond the physical realm, there are specific opportunities unique to this world – namely, the ability to “do.” Man can only change through doing; this change has implications on man’s eternal identity.
The outlook which lends such deep meaning to every day is intrinsically very demanding. It requires man to take responsibly, to live each and every day in a most exacting way, to fill each day with positive content and not let a single day waste away. The Zohar poignantly describes the danger of missing these opportunities:
Each and every day a proclamation goes out, but no one pays attention. We learn that these are the days of man. On the day that he descends to the world, they are all present and wander into the world, descend and caution the person, each day individually. When each day arrives it cautions the person (and even so) he sins on that day. The day ascends with shame and bears testimony. (Zohar Vayechi 224a)
According to the Zohar, not only is there a daily proclamation, but each day is the proclamation itself. Each day is potential yearning to be actualized. Each day implores man to live life to its fullest potential. Sometimes man is inattentive and squanders the potential embedded in that day.
The movie Groundhog Day tells about a person who each morning wakes up to the previous day, the day he had seemingly just completed. The hero of the movie never manages to progress to the next day, but instead relives the same day over and over again, until he brings out its full potential. In real life, unfortunately, there are no second chances. Each day is a unique opportunity that will inevitably be actualized or squandered.
The Zohar goes on to explain the passuk describing Adam and Chava in Gon Eden, “And they knew that they were naked” (Bereishit 3:7). They were “naked” because already on their first day of existence they managed to sin and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Therefore, the Zohar explains, they had no “garments,” thereby rendering themselves “naked.” On the other hand, the Zohar learns from the passuk that describes Avraham as “old [and] full of days” that the merited to have his days accompany him.
The Zohar teaches us the true meaning of eternal life and instructs us how to attain it. Only in this world can we attain eternal life and it is our obligation to form our eternal identity throughout our respective lifetimes. Our identities are comprised of our life experiences, defined eternally upon death, thereby lending enduring value to each day from which we have built our eternal legacy.