I’d like you to read something. It’s short. It presents a different view of ‘your soul’. It’s an excerpt from Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier’s Shmuz on Life: Stop Surviving and Start Living (this is an online e-book available at TheShmuz. com). I found it in Torah Tidbits (vol 1134, p. 58, Parshat Emor, OU Israel publications, May 1-2, 2015). The sub-title of this excerpt is, “Death isn’t about going to sleep—it’s about waking up!” I’ve edited it:
“For many years, I was a rebbe—a religious teacher. My job was to teach my students how to learn. But my more important job was to teach them how to live.
Sometimes, I would offer my students a challenge. I would say, “Gentlemen, why don’t you sin?”
Typically, someone would respond, ‘Rabbi, if I did that, HaShem would be angry with me. I don’t want HaShem to become angry with me!”
I would say, “Listen to me. Throughout history, many, many wicked people have flourished. Don’t worry about HaShem. You just do exactly what you want.”
At least one of my other students would blurt out, “Yeah, that’s true now. But when I die, my nishama (soul) will burn. I don’t want my nishama to burn.”
“Let me get this straight,” I would say. “There are many things you do even though you don’t want to. There are many things you want to do—but won’t. You act that way all for the sake of your nishama? Listen to me. Forget about your nishama. Why should you have to work so hard? You take care of you and let whatever happens to your nishama happen.”
While this story may sound facetious, it underscores a common misunderstanding. We assume that, right now, because I am alive, I think, I feel, I remember. When my time comes and I leave this earth, I die. So, gone is the “I” that thinks, feels and remembers. The “I” will be dead. My soul-- my alter ego or some kind of distant cousin or some scaled-down version of me--will be the one to stand in front of HaShem. But I will be dead.
According to that assumption, the question I have asked my students is valid. Why should I work now so that my nishama should have a good time in the World to Come? Forget about my nishama. I should think only about me.
There’s only one thing wrong with this approach. It’s dead wrong!
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter [1810-1883] explains that the difference between me when I live and me when I am dead is like taking off a coat. When I walk into a room and take off my coat, I emerge. My coat gets hung up. But I come into the room. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains that this is death.
My body—the coat—is buried. I, the one who thinks and feels, emerge. I don’t die. My body does. It’s put into the ground. But I, the occupant of the body, live on forever.
What lives forever is not some scaled-down version of me or some distant cousin or alter-ego. I live on. The same I who is sitting here right now, the same I who thinks and feels, will live on with all my memories.
This concept is foreign to us because we tend to think of death as a kind of sleep—a kind of rest. We even describe people who have passed on as being in a ‘final resting place’. We see tombstones with ‘Rest in Peace’ inscribed on them. We equate dying with going to sleep, to rest.
When we think of death as being like sleep, we’re saying, I won’t be around. My nishama—my alter ego, that other part of me--may be around. But me? I’ll be asleep.
According to that version of things, why should I work hard now so that someone else—my nishama (whatever that is)-- should benefit? Forget it. I’ll just take care of me.
That’s a critical error. When I die, my body is buried. But I live on. The same I that thinks, the same I that feels, will live on long after this body dies. The body is the housing that I fit into. But, much like the astronaut wearing a space suit, it doesn’t define me. It’s just something I wear. When my time on this earth is up, that outside shell will be put into the ground and I will leave.”
My comment: food for thought, eh?