Monthly Archives: April 2011

Death and the Other Side of Death

Judaism includes a belief in the afterlife, a “day that is entirely long”, i.e. eternal. Though no one living can claim to have seen the reward of the righteous in the World to Come, for “no eye has seen it”, our sources affirm that in fact this is a reality. In the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, the process of law and judgement are described in detail, as well as the full complement of penalties and punishments carried out by the court–monetary, corporal and capital. The eleventh chapter of the tractate, which follows the discussion of capital punishment, concerns the item that the sages felt was most relevant as a continuation of the topic, namely, who merits a portion in the world to come. What I am pointing out here is that it is clear from the arrangement of subjects in the Talmud, that the afterlife is the next step beyond death, and it is assumed.

Death, then, in Judaism does not represent the end of life in the total sense, but a transitional stage between life as we know it in Olam HaZeh (this world) and Olam HaBa (the next world). What we learn as a caveat regarding the next world is that the quality of our experience of it is directly affected by our behavior and accomplishments in this world.  This means that Olam HaBa is more of a deadline for physical man than death itself, since the ramifications of his use of self in this world will play themselves out there, on the other side of death.  I should mention that Olam HaBa also includes a complete physical resurrection and purification of the body and a re-installing of the soul within that body–a perfect marriage of the two aspects that comprise man, in a manner that was intended before the sin of Adam and Eve.

The Chassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov advised his followers to remind themselves of the World to Come immediately upon awakening, and to remember that it is the ultimate destination and goal.  Without a thorough treatment of his statement, it would be difficult to plumb its depths appropriately, but suffice it to say that this type of consciousness can accomplish two things: one, a transcendent orientation towards the vicissitudes of life in This World including all of the tools to do that (like humor, broad-mindedness, orderly priorities), and two, a concrete sense of the obligations that have been placed upon oneself–not by society, but by G-d Himself.

This second item adds to the life of the Jew a layer of meaning that goes far beyond standard meaning, reaching into the realm of ultimate meaning.  What critics of Judaism (Jews and non-Jews alike)  have struggled with through the centuries is the seeming dichotomy between a quest for meaning, which appears at first glance to be up to the individual seeker, and a religion that claims to represent the gateway to ultimate meaning and contains laws that govern virtually all areas of human behavior.  How can one reconcile the individual freedom and personal space to quest after one’s meaning on the one hand with a precise checklist of behaviors on the other?

More thoughts to follow…


Do it Now!–The Meaning of Death

What is the meaning of death?

The finite quality of  life is disturbing for many people, not only because they are forced to consider their own lives as temporary, but because there is a commonly held notion that, since it will all end anyway, a person’s efforts in life are futile.  There was once a humorous poster of a woman standing over her husband’s grave.  On the headstone, there was a list of vices that the man successfully overcame, along with the respective year he gave each one up.  At the bottom of the list was the final inscription, “DIED ANYWAY”.  The use of the word “anyway” reveals a certain implication that, although one may succeed in this or that endeavor, for a certain amount of time, one will not succeed in overcoming the ultimate hampering of man’s striving–death–and that, by extension, death represent a type of immanent failure which then strips all events before it of meaning.  This notion seems to pit life against death.  Interestingly, I myself have also come across an attitude, when working with people who have very self-destructive habits such as drug addiction or promiscuity, of, “why should I give this up if I am going to die anyway?”

This concept of death is opposed by Logotherapy.  Frankl dubbed it “neurotic fatalism”, whereby one gives up one’s responsibility for one’s life by claiming helplessness in the face of inevitable factors, such as death.  In fact, says Frankl, the fact that life is temporary is precisely what bestows meaning upon it.  With a deadline as it were (pun intended), a person knows that he or she must accomplish now, that he or she ought not to let opportunities pass, that he or she should invest all of his or her efforts in realizing his or her values.  If life were eternal, that would indeed rob all endeavors in life of meaning.  There would be nothing negative about procrastination and nothing inherently meaningful about getting things done on time.

The inevitability of death enables a person to ask him or herself, “what can I/should I contribute to others, to the world, to life?”, “what can I/should I experience in the world, with others?”, “what stand should I take vis-a-vis what life is presenting me with?”   And he or she is encouraged by the finiteness of life to respond to these questions in the here and now, to rise to the occasion of life–which is here and now!  Life’s temporariness allows for the fullest expression of human consciousness and responsibility.  The person who is aware of the meaning of the moment is able to harvest this meaning through positively engaging in it, and is then able to store what has been reaped in the “full granaries of  the past”, preserved forever.  Death, then, can serve as a glorious monument to a life lived to the fullest.

I will leave this post with a question that I will attempt to answer next time.  How does the imperative to act now in this life according to Frankl, accord with our belief in the afterlife, where, in fact, life IS eternal?  What implications does a concept of Olam HaBa (the World to Come) have for our sense of mission in the here and now?

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