The problem with the English word "soul" is that it is misleading. It was first adopted by people who had no real understanding of the concept. The English word "soul" could reasonably apply to any one of the many elements within the spiritual essences of the human.
The soul of a human being is not a one-piece item. It is more of a conglomerate, or as one friend of mine put it when I explained it to her, we each have a "modular soul." That is, there are five basic elements in each soul, and each are subdivided into various other elements. It is more complicated than that, but that will do for a start.
At this time, I am not going to define the different various spiritual elements of a person's soul, nor will I explain what each does and what each is for. That would be a major effort, and the Internet is in any case not the medium for such a lesson.
In brief, the lowest level of the spiritual elements, the most physical, is the nefesh, which gives life and animation. This is why the Torah says that "the nefesh is in the blood." Animals have nefesh also. Higher than that there are more spiritual elements, such as "ruach," "neshomoh," "chayah," and "yechidah," in ascending levels.
The conglomerate of the spiritual elements of the human being are often referred to by the acronym of "naranchai," so on occasion I will use that term, among others, even when I refer to only some of the parts of it, and not to the whole.
The naranchai is not the source of a person's good traits, unlike the beliefs of some other religions. The naranchai is spiritual, so yes, it desires spirituality. That causes within the human the desire to reach out towards the spiritual, to fulfill the natural needs and desires of the naranchai, even as the body needs to have its needs fulfilled as well. (In Judaism we do not "feed" the naranchai by starving the body. That would be a sin as well.)
Good traits come from good education, a good upbringing, a good nature, exposure to good influences, and the wisdom and knowledge of maturity.
When a person dies, most -- not all -- of his spiritual essences leave his body. Some parts remain for seven days or so at the home in which he lived, which is why there is a custom that mourners walk around the block when they get up from the shivah (seven-day mourning period), to symbolically "escort" the departed away from his home, so to speak.
Some parts of a person's spiritual essences remain at the grave for either eleven or twelve months, I forget which.
When a person dies, most of the spiritual elements leave the body. If the person, when alive, focused primarily on spiritual matters, and was engrossed in developing the spiritual self through the study of Torah and the performance of the Commandments, as well as the perfection of characteristic traits, that person will be spiritual.
The naranchai is not affected by the person's physical life. It is affected by the person's focus. In other words, a person who lived in luxury and comfort, but worked hard for spiritual matters will be spiritual. Bear in mind that success in those matters is not the issue. It is the sincere attempt to attain and do the spiritual that makes a person spiritual.
Such a person has little or no problem upon death. It means that the person has developed his spiritual "muscles."
If, however, a person did not do good deeds, or never attempted to perfect his characteristic traits, or never or seldom studied Torah or prayed, that person will be rooted in corporeality. A person who during his life made the physical his primary purpose in life will have a severely underdeveloped spiritual essence. Consequently, that person will be rooted to his body even after death.
Such a naranchai will have great difficulty leaving the vicinity of its dead body. The Midrash Tanchumah compares it to the owner of a home that was destroyed by an accidental fire. The owner keeps returning to the scene of the home, staring in grief at the remains and the ashes, crying over the only home he once knew.
But the person who has focused on spirituality knows (not just knows -- he or she has internalized and lived the concept) that the body is not the purpose of human existence, and such a naranchai is easily able to leave the vicinity of the body.
However, a "homesick" naranchai (i.e., that of a person who has lived a life focused on the physical) needs to discover that it is still tied to the earth, when it should be moving along. That naranchai does not notice that it has "physical" associations still attached, and that these are preventing him from moving on to the spiritual realm. In Hebrew we call those pseudo-physical attachments "klipos," which means husks, or shells. They distract a person from the core, the essential elements of spirituality. The klipos are not created or suddenly attached to the naranchai upon death. These associations have been made over the course of its lifetime.
This situation is curable, even though the person is dead. I will not explain the process at this time. Suffice it to say that the method is emotionally painful. It serves to make the naracnchai aware of the problem and by bring into sharp focus the nature of the klipos and the nature of the naranchai. The naranchain will choose to relinquish its associations to the klipos -- i.e., its physical associations.
If and when the naranchai gets free of its physical associations, the naranchai is brought before the Heavenly Court, where a decision is made about its future.
The naranchai does not go alone. As the Talmud and Midrash say, whenever we do anything good, like we study Torah, or refrain from a bad deed (to name just two examples), that action creates an angel that testifies to that good deed. The angel, by its nature, makes the person's deed known. Whenever a person does an evil deed, he creates a spiritual entity of some sort that testifies by its very nature to the negative deed that this person has done.
Wherever we go, we are surrounded by these entities. The naranchai goes before the Heavenly Court surrounded and heralded by these entities.
These entities are not merely counted by the Heavenly Court. Their very nature is examined. When we do a good deed with full enthusiasm, we create a healthy angel. When we do a good deed half-heartedly, we create a weak and lame angel, commensurate with the level of our intentions. It has been said by great Rabbis that there is a great difference between doing an evil deed because you have finally, sadly, succumbed to your desires, and doing an evil deed with full relish and joy.
Judaism has no eternal hell. That is a Christian invention, to the best of my knowledge. "The judgment of the wicked in purgatory is twelve months," says the Talmud (Sabbath 33b). Nevertheless, there are exceptions where one might have to go for a little longer.
Sometimes, a soul that has already been here on earth is returned to earth and placed into the body of a child soon to be born. This happens for several reasons. The primary reason is as follows: A person has a job to do on earth. If that job is not done, the soul might have to come down to try again.
Hashem gives each soul certain strengths and certain weaknesses. Some of our weaknesses are given to us to be rectified and strengthened. Some of our weaknesses are meant to be overcome in other ways. We may have to learn to live with a problem (and everyone has problems) and learn to be happy in spite of it. Or learn and attain some other good characteristic trait. There are a myriad of permutations and possible situations. In fact, there's one for each person alive, since no two people have exactly the same situation or the same makeup.
Sometimes a person is given a strength or advantage so that he or she can use that to help others. The obvious example is a person born into riches, and who can therefore help poor or otherwise disadvantaged people. At the same time, he or she might also be born with the trait of miserliness, and must work to overcome that trait in this life. Again, this is just one example of millions.
If a person does not accomplish what he has been sent down on earth to accomplish in his first lifetime, he might be sent down to try again. And again. And again. (I do not know if there is a limit.)
There are numerous other things that can bring someone down again. One example (of many) is someone who has died without paying back a loan or something he stole. He is sent down and given the opportunity somehow to do something for the person he owes the debt to.
And sometimes a completely righteous person with no sins is sent down again to be a guide and teacher for others who need him or her.
If, however, the person who just died is judged to be righteous, he or she is taken to the Realm of Souls. (Sorry I had to use the word "soul" there, but you know what I mean.)
The Realm of Souls is a temporary place. Its purpose is to allow the naranchai to recharge its batteries, so to speak.
As long as we are on this physical world, we are unable to express the full holiness of the naranchai. This is because of the sin of Adam and Eve. When they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, without permission from Hashem, they caused this world to become much more physical than it had been. This world therefore dampens the spiritual side of the human being, and makes it difficult for us to fully blossom spiritually.
The Realm of Souls has no such preventive. The naranchai therefore has the opportunity to grow in holiness constantly.
The Realm of Souls is not a static or boring place. It is a place of constant spiritual growth, unimpeded by physical limitations or drawbacks.
The means by which we absorb holiness in the Realm of Souls is through the study of Torah. The Torah that one is given to study in the Realm of Souls is only the Torah that he has studied in this world, though there are occasional exceptions. One exception is Torah that he has helped others learn, by, for example, supporting someone so he can study Torah, or by donating to Torah Academies so that people can study Torah. Another example is that people on this world can study Torah in the merit of the deceased, and it is considered as if the deceased has studied it himself.
Torah studied on this world, but not understood despite sincere and hard effort, is studied and finally understood in the Realm of Souls.
And there the souls await and grow, until the Resurrection.
A good source for this sort of information is a Book called The Way of G-d, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of blessed memory, published by Feldheim Publishers.
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