In my various conversations with congregants, this question resurfaces time and time again. After the body quiets, does the soul live on? Basically, what happens after you die?
Judaism offers a variety of answers. Dr. Eitan Fishbane, associate professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America explains that while “we are so deeply embodied, that is not the true essence of who we are.” Meaning, in this world, we are taught to focus on our physical bodies. How we look, what we wear, what we eat and how others perceive our exterior. However, Dr. Fishbane reveals a part of our tradition that focuses on reincarnation of the soul. After we die, the soul lives on, continuing in this world to engage in tikkun, the constant repairing of this broken world.
The concept of “reincarnation of the soul” or “gilgul neshamot” is complex and multifaceted. However, the notion that the essence of the human being is the soul itself is quite beautiful. Kabbalist Hayyim ben Yosef Vital writes, “It is known to the masters of knowledge that the body of a person is not the person himself…it follows from this that a person is the interiority, while the body is but one garment that the intellective soul is garbed within…after death this garment will be stripped away from him, and he will be garbed in a pure, clean, spiritual garment.” As the shell of our body breaks away, the soul remains…ready to take on God’s next assignment, your soul’s subsequent divine task.
Extrapolating from the Kabbalistic philosophy, I can’t help but be comforted in feeling the presence of my loved ones’ souls surrounding me. They whisper words of encouragement, guidance, solace, and direction. They remind me to live with purpose and kindness. They ask that through my deeds and words to ascend closer to God, climbing rungs of holiness. The souls of the past that remain vibrant in my present remind me to never be afraid. And they express over and over again that on God’s behalf, there is much work to do.
Says the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, all my being, His Holy Name.”
God, bless our souls—in this world and the world to come. Amen.