The afterlife

Part one


A [1] foundational conception of the soul is that all souls are considered divine. We learn from the Kabbala that a soul begins a process of detachment once it departs from the body. One may ask, how much does one retain form the connections and memories of one’s life after death? Are they even worth retaining?

Our existence does not stop with death; another part of our being, the non-bodily part, remains. In death, as in life we are compound beings made of two unequal, disparate parts. One part is visible and has a particular way of being and communicating; the other, inner part is in many ways – though not entirely – what we call the “self”. During one’s lifetime, that self is a combination of body and soul, which does not dwell entirely in the soul, or entirely in the body. The interface between body and soul creates our sense of self.

Death is a significant change. The “self” moves into a different, non-material existence. There is an image, found on a tablet from the Minoan culture in Crete of some four thousand year ago. On one side of the tablet are drawings of a person walking, then of a person lying down, apparently dead, and a small bird-like figurine, which may represent the soul. On the other side are a caterpillar, a chrysalis and a butterfly.

The tablet seems to be depicting precisely that change. For the caterpillar, changing into a butterfly is exactly the same as dying for Humans. When the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis, it loses its previous form of existence; it ceases to exist as caterpillar. It is the same caterpillar that reemerges – and yet it is not the same. It is a different life, a different existence.

That image is a rudimentary portrayal of what happens at death. When we die, things that pertain to our former existence cease. We reemerge in a different form, one that is not understandable in life. Though we have a soul when we are alive, our soul is only part of our existence – and not always the most conscious part of the self. It may be a living and thinking part, but the soul alone does not have the same self-understanding as it has when it is together with the body. Because of the way we are raised, because of the way we live, we do not have the same feelings for the soul as we have for the body.

Even though we cannot really bridge the gap between life in the body and life without a body, we may at least get some ideas about what happens on the other bank. Our experiences in the body come mainly through the senses. Yet, in everyday life, we do have a fair number of non-sensory experiences. Two common ones are memory and imagination. Most people can remember past experiences very vividly. Not only can we remember, we can also construct images that we have never actually encountered. Dreams are just as common. In our dreams we do and watch things which, while we are dreaming, feel as real as life itself.

These experiences with memories and dreams may help give us a better understanding of a completely non-bodily existence. The Kabbalah tells us that at the moment of death – whether the parting is painful or a moment of great joy, release and freedom - the soul carries all the imagery of life in the body, especially after a long life of seventy or eighty years. Although in death these “embodied” notions are no longer true, there is a certain period, which may be short or long, in which the soul behaves as if it were still within a body. In Hebrew, this imaginary world is called Olam HaDimyon, “the world of imagination”.

From the works of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.