When a soul descends and becomes implanted in a physical body, it is in some aspects a great tragedy for that soul. The soul does not feel comfortable in this world. Its true home is in a higher sphere.
If so, why does the soul come down to this inferior world in the first place? One answer is that the soul comes to give life to the inert body, as we read in the account of G-d creating the first man, Adam:
And Hashem G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
On a most basic level, the soul constitutes the source of energy which animates the body. It is because we have a soul that we can think, dream, see and dream. In Hebrew this facet of the soul is called nefesh. The nefesh distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can picture the nefesh as a long rope which hangs down from the heavens and reaches this world. The rope is always pulled taut and tries to elevate the nefesh back to its celestial origin. In other words, the nefesh is always anxious to return to the source from which it came, its true home.
Another reason the nefesh comes down to this world is so that it can perform tasks assigned to it and thus earn its way into the World to Come. Of course, G-d could allow the nefesh entrance to the World to Come without having to work for it. Why, then, the detour to this world with all its tensions, tests, and travail?
This, too, is for man's benefit. We enjoy something far more if we have earned it by the sweat of our brow. When we receive an outright gift, unearned and undeserved, our pleasure in the gift is somewhat tainted by the feeling of shame. We have been presented with a hand-out out of pity, not in recognition of our accomplishments.
When man has completed his task in this world, he advances to the realm of the nefesh, known as the World of Truth. Each individual has a portion in the world of Truth which is commensurable with his deeds in this world. When the nefesh was sent down to this world, there were no criteria to be met. Not so in the World of Truth. Here, a person's credentials are examined meticulously. In the World of Truth, each one's reward is tailored specifically to what he accomplished while his nefesh was “installed” in a body of flesh and blood.
The nefesh must testify in the Heavenly Court. His record is carefully examined, and he is assigned a place in the World of Truth in keeping with his deeds. Those found worthy of reward are allowed entrance to the Garden of Eden. Individuals found guilty are sent to Gehenna, where their nefesh will be cleansed so that they too will eventually merit the sweet rewards of the Garden of Eden.
The World to Come is not the same as the Garden of Eden. The World to Come will come into existence only after this world as we know it has played out its full role in Heaven's master-plan for the universe. Those found worthy will dwell there forever and bask in “the radiance of G-d's presence.” Although we are not in a position to fully appreciate what this means, since we are limited in this world, suffice it to say that this pleasure is far greater than any that our five senses can absorb from our present environment. It is a spiritual pleasure which cannot be compared with anything in this world, neither quantitatively, nor qualitatively. By its very essence, it is above and beyond anything which can be perceived by the five senses of the human body.
Can we prove that there is “life after life”?
A moment's reflection provides an answer. We know that we exist, that the world and the universe exist. We know that they were created by a Supreme Being with powers and wisdom far beyond any that the human intellect can grasp. Let us stop for a minute and ask ourselves why an omnipotent Power should “invent” mankind? What has He to gain? He has no need of subjects to pay taxes, as does a sovereign of flesh and blood. Neither has He need of flatterers or court officials. In short, by definition, there is nothing which He lacks.
It must be, then, that Man was created not for the benefit of G-d, but for the benefit of man himself. If so, let us look around us and observe the human condition in our society. Is everyone happy? Does everyone have all that he needs, and plenty of it? Is everyone hale and hearty, so he can enjoy life on this earth to the fullest?
The answer to each of these questions is obviously a resounding “No!” Even if we reformulate them so that we ask not about everyone, but only look for a majority, the answers will remain the same. We cannot by any stretch of the imagination declare that more than half the people currently on the face of this globe are healthy, happy, feel that all their needs are being met, and are contented with their lives. The degree of human suffering on earth is mind-boggling, yet, we know that this is the world that G-d created for man's benefit, and that He could just as easily have made it perfect and pleasing for one and all.
Why, then, would the Creator produce a world with tsunamis, hurricanes, forest fires, famines, and tornadoes? Why does he let mankind bring such wide-sweeping tragedies upon themselves through tyrants and terrorists? What about the diseases, plagues, and all the suffering that microbes bring on Mankind? Couldn't G-d have made us in such a way that we would not be susceptible to all these scourges?
Of course He could have, but, in His wisdom, He did not choose to do so. Why?
In short, does it make sense that the terra firma we call home is the wonderful world which G-d made to provide pleasure and contentment for His creatures, the work of His hands?
That said, we are left with a perplexing question. Why, then, did He make this world and place us in it?
The answer is that this world is merely a long corridor which leads to another, better realm in which the soul can partake of pleasures, and pleasures alone. For our pleasure to be complete, however, we must earn our just reward, not just find it on our doorsteps one morning like a handout from a local charity organization.
(Our intention is not, heaven forbid, to belittle the wonderful work of charity groups; but don't we all hope and pray to be on the giving end? Also, even if we do need a helping hand from others, we look forward to the day when the tables will be turned, and we will be in a position to help others.)
The only logical conclusion is that our life here on this earth is only a small fragment of our soul-life taken as a whole. This fact is a tremendous source of moral support for the believing Jew. When tragedy strikes, when difficulties loom on the horizon and there seems to be no way out of a dilemma, the believing Jew takes comfort in knowing that this difficult time is only a tiny segment of his overall lifetime. There will be better times, and those times will be far more pleasurable than we can imagine with the tools available to us at this stage. The Jew remains steadfast in his belief that the day will come when his suffering is behind him.
This hope for the future shields the sufferer from despair in several ways. First of all, he knows for a certainty that there is a limit to the amount he will have to suffer. Secondly, he is confident that the future holds great happiness for him. And last of all, he knows that the day will come when he will understand the purpose of his present suffering and anguish, and will perceive how they were for his own benefit.
These advantages do not transform his suffering into a pleasure, but they do imbue him with the strength to accept his present circumstances without falling into despair. We might compare his situation to that of someone who needs major surgery. The patient knows that he will feel pain as a result of the incisions his doctors make in his body, but he nonetheless submits himself to the operation, because the chances are that, in the long run, he will feel better as a result. He hopes that the pain will be only a temporary stage, followed by better times, with his health restored by the surgery. Even though the discomfort and pain are difficult to bear, hundreds of thousands of people around the world let themselves be wheeled into operating theaters each day, of their own free will, in hopes that their lives will be improved as a result.
The Jew who is firm in his belief enjoys a unique light at the end of the tunnel. He knows that the future holds blessing and comfort. The obstacles are temporary, and hope never leaves his heart. This prospect of a better life makes his stay in this world more pleasant, as well. It empowers him with a vitality that helps him succeed in the trials life presents to him.
The believer is aware that each challenge he meets will bring a rich reward in its wake. He even thanks Heaven for assigning him a task in the form of a challenge that he must meet, so that he will be entitled to a greater reward in the World of Truth.