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Life and Death 

At the moment of death, a soul is born


AS humans, we’re wired to value life and to expend time, money, and resources to ensure it. At simchahs, we lift our wine glasses and say, “l’chayim — to life.” On the Yamim Noraim, we plead with Hashem to write us in the Book of Life.

Death, on the other hand, is shrouded in mystery and often engenders feelings of fear and anxiety. What is the Jewish view of death and dying?

Gesher Hachaim, authored by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tuchazinski ztz”l, is one of the classic halachic and hashakafic works on this topic. As the name of the sefer suggests, life as we know it is a bridge, beginning with birth and ending with death.

So, Too, in the Womb

The experience inside the womb is a wonderful allegory for the limitations of what’s outside the world in which we exist. Imagine twins in the womb wondering if there is any existence outside of theirs. One twin, who has a tradition that there is a magnificent world out there, tries to convince the “rational” twin that life in the womb is just preparation for a much greater life outside. The rational brother believes they’re being fed and carried for these few months and that’s the entirety of their “lives.” Then the “naive” twin slips out, and the other twin, hearing his brother’s cries, assumes he has fallen to his demise.

Just like the development of the fetus in the womb is part of its transition to a much richer life, so too is our development in This World a part of our transition to a much richer life in the Next World. And just as a fetus in the womb can’t imagine any life outside the womb, we can’t fathom any life outside of our existence. Gesher Hachaim notes that fetal life lasts between seven and nine months, which parallels our stay in This World, on average between 70 and 90 years. When a child is born, we witness the birth of a body, and when a person leaves This World, we witness the birth of a soul. We don’t know the exact moment a baby will be born, there is a period of waiting. Likewise, the same period of anticipation occurs as we wait for the moment of death, the birth of our soul.

The Zohar teaches us that “the righteous experience joy on the day of their departure.” The tzaddikim enter a world where they’ll bask in the radiance of the Shechinah and enjoy the fruits of their efforts in This World. The Torah, in commanding us to mourn for the departed, is emphasizing the loss of opportunities for this person to grow in Torah learning and mitzvah performance. Aveilus — mourning, is an opportunity for the family of the departed to refocus on the purpose of our existence in This World and to realign their values with Hashem’s.

This World, Pirkei Avos teaches us, is an antechamber to the next world. Our job in This World is to perform Torah and mitzvos to earn us the reward of closeness to Hashem in the Next World.

The Peak of Our Existence

Rav Moshe Wolfson shlita, in Wellsprings of Faith, explains that this focus comes to a crescendo on the day a person dies. Each day of a person’s life is like writing a page of his manuscript. On one’s final day, this entire book, one’s entire life and all that was accomplished during it, suddenly appears. The Zohar explains that all of one’s mitzvos come to escort a person to his place in the spiritual worlds. For a tzaddik, this day is one of unparalleled spiritual heights, of tremendous spiritual intensity. Moshe Rabbeinu hinted to this when he said, “I am 120 years old today”; on that day, all of his past accomplishments came to the fore, and hence, only then was he referred to as “the man of Hashem.” Similarly, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was able to teach the depths of Zohar in an unprecedented manner on the day he died.

This explanation, notes Rabbi Wolfson, helps us understand two enigmatic stories in Tanach. At the time that Eliyahu Hanavi was about to leave This World, Elisha Hanavi, his protégé, asked for a gift of double the spirit of his master. How was Eliyahu Hanavi supposed to give him more than he possessed? Eliyahu Hanavi’s response is illuminating. He notes that if Elisha Hanavi is privy to see him being taken Upstairs, his request will be granted. At that crucial moment, Eliyahu Hanavi would be many times greater than he was in his lifetime and hence could grant this request.

When a person is present at this very poignant moment of “tzais haneshamah,” he becomes affected by the person who dies. This explains how “vayigdalu hanaarim,” how it was possible that Yaakov and Eisav grow up, and one became a hunter and one studied in the tents of Torah.

What sent these twins in such opposite directions? The story the Chumash relates right after it says “vayigdalu hanaarim,” is the sale of the birthright. Chazal explain that Yaakov Avinu was making lentil soup as a mourner’s meal, for Avraham Avinu just died. At the same time, Eisav committed heinous crimes. Rabbi Wolfson explains that Yaakov Avinu was most probably at the bedside of his grandfather during those final moments. Avraham Avinu’s accomplishments escorted him to the next world, and Yaakov Avinu was able to imbibe this level of holiness and greatness.

Chazal describe that on the same day, Eisav comes back from his hunt in which he killed Nimrod, the epitome of evil and decadence. The fact that Eisav was with Nimrod at his final moments affected him, causing him to absorb Nimrod’s layers of negativity and evil. As a result of being present at the deaths of two diametrically different people, each twin skyrocketed in different directions.

In one of his derashos, the Chasam Sofer bemoaned the fact he wasn’t privileged to be at the bedside of his rebbe, Rav Nosson Adler ztz”l, when he died. He notes that had he been there, he would have become twice as great as his rebbe.

The Moments of Death

Not only do people benefit from being with their relative at the final moments, it’s also a great privilege for the dying person as well. Ma’avar Yabok notes that a person receives pleasure having his family and friends present, just as he did when he was alive.

It’s important to encourage a person to say Vidui before dying. The Shulchan Aruch tells us that we should tell the dying person that many who said Vidui didn’t die, and many who didn’t say it died, and that a person who says Vidui before he dies is given a portion in the World to Come.

A person shouldn’t be left alone during his final moments of transition from This World to the Next. Some of the pirkei Tehillim that are customary to recite at the time of witnessing someone’s petirah are chapters 121, 130, and 91. It’s then customary to recite Yigdal, Adon Olam, Ana B’koach, and the second paragraph of Aleinu. At the moment of death, one should recite Shema Yisrael, Baruch Sheim three times in a whisper, Hashem hu Ha’Elokim seven times, and finally, “Hashem melech, Hashem malach, Hashem yimloch l’olam vaed,” once.

Just as the Shechinah is present at the birth of a baby, the Shechinah is present as it escorts the soul to its next level of existence, the ultimate place for which the soul yearns to be, unencumbered by the physical constraints of the body.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 820)

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