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…