Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
It's happened more than once, and usually on a Friday afternoon. We'd be setting up for Shabbos at home and the phone would ring. A son or daughter of a Hospice patient I'd been visiting with would be calling.
"Rabbi?" it would always start off, in a sober tone. "My mother's dying and I want to know. Do we believe in an afterlife?"
How could anyone hope to explain millennia of revelation and reassurance while standing on one leg? But given the constraints of space, I have no choice. So I'll do my best to express what our tradition has said about the afterlife. And believe me-- there's a lot there.
The truth be known, most of us are rather flabbergasted to learn just how much the Jewish tradition says about all this. So while this isn't the place to go into it at length, I'll do what I can and hope you'd read up on the subject on your own to learn more.
By the way, what follows is derived from the Torah and Talmud, as well as from reliable Aggadic, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic literature. And we're necessarily going to cover a lot of ground in a short space.
We're taught that the spirit starts to leave the body on a very subtle level some thirty days before the person passes away. And that as soon as the person dies, his or her spirit alights and is greeted by relatives who have already died, as well as by the Divine Presence.
Despite that, the newly-deceased person is still aware of what's going on here, on earth. He or she is said to leap back and forth from one "world" to the other (which is, of course, only possible when one is no longer constricted by the laws of nature). The deceased is aware of what's going on with the family, what's being said about him or her at the funeral; and he or she mourns for the death of the body along with everyone else.
The deceased relates less and less to the world as time goes by. To the point where by the end of the first year, he or she is dissociated from it nearly entirely.
Back to the "other side" now.
The soul experiences what's referred to as "judgment" on the other side. That means to say that it experiences what we call "life review". The "tape" of its life is played back, and certain more important moments are pointed out, for good or for bad. The good is rewarded, and the bad is used as a sort of example of "what not to do".
We call the reward "The Garden of Eden" (commonly referred to as "Heaven"), and we call what the soul experiences for what it now recognizes as a mistake, "Gehenom" (commonly referred to as "Hell", though Gehenom is far different).
But let's not forget something. We're talking about a soul-- not you and me. The reward of The Garden of Eden and the consequences of Gehenom aren't physical. They're spiritual. The closest analogy we have to them are our emotions. So let's think of the reward of The Garden of Eden as a sort of deep joy and satisfaction, and the consequences of Gehenom as a sort of deep remorse and disappointment. We're not talking about riding on clouds with a harp, or burning in hellfire and brimstone! We're also taught that the Gehenom experience only lasts a year, at most, after which the soul settles into its place in The Garden of Eden.
Contrary to other faiths, we're taught that the so-called "Heaven" experience isn't the end of the story. The soul stays in The Garden of Eden only as long as it has to. For at a certain point in time-- after the arrival of the Messiah (a subject unto itself)-- the world will be undone, most of the dead will be resurrected in a new body (which is too arcane for us to describe now), and we'll then enter The World to Come.
Suffice it to say that The World to Come will be an utterly foreign experience as far as we're concerned. But it will center upon us communing with G-d, and fathoming the mysteries of the universe in ways we could never have imagined.
May you never have to face the prospects of having this explained to you in dire straits. And may we all draw comfort from the reality of the spiritual realm.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at United Hospice of Rockland County (New York). Rabbi Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Path of the Just", "The Duties of the Heart", and "The Gates of Repentance" (Jason Aronson Press), and he offers two e-mail classes at Project Genesis www.torah.org -- "Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal".