On Shemini Atzeret we recite yizkor. We remember the souls who have enriched our lives with their love. We hold them close spiritually and we connect to them in a way we don’t make time for every day.
On Shemini Atzeret the souls of our loved ones visit us and spend time with us.
Where are those souls the rest of the year?
This week as part of our daf yomi cycle we are studying the last chapter of Sanhedrin known as Perek Chelek. This chapter deals with the topic of olam habah (often translated as the World to Come) and techiyat hametim (often translated as The Resurrection of the Dead).
Therefore, in honor of Yizkor and in honor of this chapter of Talmud, it is appropriate to study together the concept of olam habah.
The first Mishnah of perek Chelek tells us:
“Kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek le-olam habah, all of Israel has a share in the world to come…. However there are some who don’t have a share, haomer ein lo techiyat hametim min hatorah, one who denies techiyat hametim….. sholosha melachim vearbah hedyotot ein lahen chelek leolam habah, three kings and four non-kings have no share in olam habah. The three kings are Yerovam, Achav, and Menashae. The four non-kings are Bilam, Doeg, Achitofel, and Geichazi” (Sanhedrin, 90a).
From here we learn that as a baseline all of the Jewish people have a share in this place called olam habah.
As a tangent, we should note that gentiles also have a share in the world to come. Judaism teaches that one does not need to be Jewish in order to have a share in olam habah. As Tiferet Yisrael (yachin, bet) points out the proof for this is from our Mishnah, which states that Bilam has no share in olam habah. Bilam was a wicked non-Jewish prophet. From the fact that the Mishnah needs to tell us that the wicked Bilam has no share in the world to come it means that as a baseline gentiles also have a share in the world to come. The only distinction is that for a Jew to have a portion he needs not to violate any of the principles set forth in our Mishnah and in several other places in the Talmud, whereas a gentile’s obligation is to keep the seven Noahide laws.
What is this place called olam habah?
Obviously, this question is worthy of an extended period of study. But people should be familiar with at least two major rabbinic approaches.
Rambam discusses this in chapter eight of his, Laws of Repentance. He writes:
“In the world to come, there is no body or physical form, only the souls of the righteous alone, without a body, like the ministering angels. Since there is no physical form, there is neither eating, drinking, nor any of the other bodily functions of this world like sitting, standing, sleeping, death, sadness, laughter, and the like” (8:2).
In other words, Rambam is of the opinion that in olam habah there will be no bodies or physicality, just souls. After we die our souls will be able to soar and connect to Hashem in a way that is incomprehensible to us while we physically inhabit the earth.
On the other hand, according to Rambam, techiyat hametim is something else entirely. After our death there will come a moment in history where our bodies will be resurrected and then live again on earth for a period of time. (See Rambam, Iggeret Techiyat Hametim.)
The problem with this approach of Rambam is that it appears contradictory. He is of the opinion that olam habah is the greatest point of our existence and the ultimate goal of all of our actions. The separation of the body from the soul is a blessing since we have finally been removed from the limitations of our bodies and through the liberation of our neshamot can now achieve a deep connection to Hashem. If so—that the liberation from the body is a goal of our existence—then why after death would we as a reward for being good Jews, be removed from the awesome place in Heaven where our neshamot reside and be returned to our bodies as part of techiyat hametim. It is illogical. And for this reason many have suspected that Rambam is writing in coded language and does not literally accept the concept of techiyat hametim in a manner consistent with the way of most other traditional commentators.
Ramban (Sha’ar Hagemul, chapter 5) and other medieval Spanish commentators take a different approach.
They argue that olam habah is actually one and the same as techiyat hametim. They suggest that there will come a specific point in the future where God will reunite our souls with our bodies and we will be resurrected and that that physical entity will then live eternally.
Indeed, the same source that Rambam uses as a proof text that there is no physical body in the world to come, they now use as a source for the fact that we will have a body in olam habah. The Rambam had cited Berakhot, 17a which stated that “in the world to come there will be NO eating, drinking, business, or procreation.” So this school of thought argues that if there truly is no body in the world to come, it should just say there is “no body.” From the fact that instead it says that there will be no eating, drinking, etc…; i.e it lists many different functions, when it could have just said that there is no body--this proves that there won’t be those functions but that there will be a physical form.
One way to think about this approach to olam habah was best explained to me by a teacher I once studied with named, Caroline Walker Bynum, a brilliant professor at Columbia University. I once took a class with her that focused on the thought of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the Abbot of Clairvaux, and an extremely important Christian theologian.
St. Bernard argued that there are two stages after death. In the first stage, our souls leave our bodies and go to heaven. In this stage our souls reach a much higher level than when they were connected to our bodies on earth. But then our souls become illuminated to a great degree by the experience in Heaven. Still the souls are lacking something by not having the body. There is an element to the body that can enhance the soul. In St. Bernard’s opinion we are only able to fully utilize the spiritual capabilities, of the combined body and soul once our soul has spent time in Heaven. When our souls return to our bodies it all clicks and brings us to an even greater spiritual level. In this return to earth all the physical senses of our body are not limitations on our soul, but enhancements that are now able to give us an even greater understanding of God. That’s why returning to our bodies after we were in Heaven should not be seen as a demotion so to speak, but as an enhancement of our spiritual level.
St. Bernard’s theory helps me to understand Ramban and his Spanish colleagues on techiyat hametim and olam habah. The reason why we need Resurrection of the Dead after our time in heaven is that it is only after we have spent time in Heaven that we can truly appreciate the gifts of the physical and the way that the physical can enhance the spiritual.
Now that we have seen these two classical approaches to olam habah, perhaps we should shift our perspective. These two approaches share a common theme that olam habah is a place that requires admission; i.e. in order to achieve entrance into it we need to score a high enough mark on our exam.
What if instead of focusing on our final grade, instead we viewed olam habah as a nourishing element in our lives helping us to succeed.
Here are two other approaches to the concept of olam habah that suggest that olam habah is actually an enabling and nourishing element in our life.
R. Moshe Alshekh (1508-1583, Turkey and Israel) suggests that the purpose of our Mishnah is to point out that there are many different ways to be Jewish. Some are diligent Torah students, others excel in acts of kindness, and others are very charitable. And even within Torah study there is a wide range of study. Some study the chumash and others only the Talmud. When we stood at Sinai all the souls of the Jewish people until eternity stood there as well. Each one of us received the Torah in a way that was appropriate for our own skills and desires. And thus each one of us, if we follow through and cultivate the special set of talents we have and reach our potential in that area then we will have cultivated our share in the World to Come. (See his commentary to Vayikra, 9:5.)
In other words, according to R. Alshekh, the phrase “all of Israel has a share in the World to Come,” is meant to inspire us all to follow our greatest passions when it comes to living out the teachings of the Torah.
One last approach that I want to share was suggested by the great, R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821). R. Chaim was the student of the Vilna Gaon and the founder of the famous Volozhin Yeshivah. This yeshiva is known for its brilliant Talmudic analysis, but R. Chaim, in addition to being a great Talmudist, was also a deeply spiritual leader with an expertise in mystical thought.
He writes that it is known that at the moment a person has an idea to perform a mitzvah a mark is made in Heaven, and a fire comes forth from Heaven to support him and enable him to fulfill this mitzvah. When he completes this mitzvah this fire gets stronger and illuminates even more. Once he has completed the mitzvah, the fire departs from him and travels to Gan Eden where it is put aside for him for the future.
This is why it says all of Israel has a share le-olam habbah and not be-olam habbah. Be-olam would imply that the World to Come is a specific, independent place created by God at the beginning of time and that we are trying to gain access to it by being righteous.
But in truth says R. Chaim that is not what it is and that is not what we should be focused on!
Rather it is le-olam habbah, for our own olam habah. The next world is something that we ourselves create with our own hands—that we expand and build with all of the good deeds and mitzvoth that we do in this world!
That is why it says that all of Israel has a share in olam habah. Everyone has their own share in the holiness and flames that he or she worked on and created with all of their good deeds in this world. Thus when it says le-olam habbah it means that a person is making the world to come themselves with all their actions (Nefesh Hachayim, 1:13).
According to this approach, this is what we mean when we say kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek le-olam habbah:
All of Israel –each one of us -- has an infinite ability to create something special. The focus of our actions should not be on getting an admission ticket into a specific place, but rather on creating fires of glory with our goods deeds. We all have an ability to create our share of holy fires; to create a place for our selves that is reflective of all the noble deeds that we did in this world.
Our goal in life should not be to enter into the World to Come, but to build the World to Come.
There is a beautiful story in the Talmud that makes this point.
R. Yehoshua b. Levi came to Elijah the Prophet and asked if he would merit to enter the World to Come. Elijah told him, “Don’t ask me. Go ask the Messiah.” He told him that he would find the Messiah sitting with the other lepers at the entrance to the city of Rome. The Messiah would be busy taking off the bandages for his wounds, one bandage at a time, in case he would be called to redeem the people and have to spring into immediate action. So R. Yehoshua b. Levi found the Messiah sitting amongst the poor lepers and he asked him, “When will you come?” The Messiah said, “today.” At the end of the day, R. Yehoshua b. Levi said to Elijah, “You see he lied to me!” Elijah said, “No.” He will come today if you listen to Gd’s commandments.
This is an incredibly powerful story. Instead of focusing on whether or not we get to enter the World to Come, we should be spending our time bringing the Messiah. He is waiting for us amongst the poor, the neglected, and the vulnerable.
If that is how we spend our time then we will indeed be building our own share in the World to Come!
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