Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil
While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal. For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God. To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come. Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.
It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul. In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal. Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out? The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.
Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle. I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.
Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife. It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic. For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts. The first is that all human beings are essentially the same. We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical. Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.
Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins. Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition. That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance. It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart. So what is the source of our uniqueness? How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?
According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God. In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins. When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike. However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another. We are each of us unique. If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul. If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible. Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot. With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally. And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character. The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.
But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable? Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms, But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.
We are all mourners. There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost. We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable. It comes from deep within us. It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head. Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings. In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.
As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well? Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them. Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way. We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs. While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just perhaps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.
Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us. We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within. We feel their comfort. We sense their love. And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone. We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.
Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf. Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory. Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses. For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach. For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe. So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?
BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a
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