Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Rabbi Ronen NeuwirthGil Eliahu

Two portions in the Book of Genesis, Sefer Bereshit, contain the word ‘life’ in their title - Chayei Sarah and Vayechi. Surprisingly enough, these portions do not deal with life but rather with death – the deaths of Sarah and Abraham, and the deaths of Jacob and Joseph.

The Sages made a similar observation when they wrote: “Our patriarch Jacob did not die.” (Taanit 5b) Perhaps they mean that the end of Sefer Bereshit echoes the beginning of the story. The original intention for Adam was to enjoy eternal life in the Garden of Eden. G-d warned Adam that eating from the Tree of Knowledge would bring the concept of death into the world: “But of the Tree of Knowledge…you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof you shall die.” (Bereshit 2:17)

Adam did not die on the day he ate from the forbidden tree, but he brought death to the world. From that moment onward he was not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life (Bereshit 3:22). Just as Adam was originally intended to enjoy eternity but instead brought death to the world, our patriarchs and matriarchs paved the path to restoring the concept of eternal life. In that sense, then it is true that “Jacob did not die”.

The belief in eternal life, Techiyat haMetim, is one of the foundations of the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, there have been many disputes and even heated debates about the purpose of techiyat ha-metim and how it fits in with other central concepts, such as Olam Haba or the Messianic Age. The Rambam expressed an ambivalent attitude to Techiyat haMetim in several of his writings, and some critics alleged that he did not truly believe in it. It was for that reason that the Rambam composed a work, his Igerret Techiyat Ha-Metim, to clarify his position and views.

The Rambam describes Techiyat haMetim as a temporary stage in which there will be a resurrection for the righteous, who will be reunited with their families and enjoy a peaceful life. Eventually, they will all die and be elevated to Olam Haba. However, the Rambam does not attempt to explain the purpose of Techiyat haMetim.

The idea of Techiyat haMetim as a reality that entails another death stands in a sharp contradiction to the position of other Sages who claim that: “The righteous whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, is destined to resurrect do not return to their dust.” (Sanhedrin 92b)I Indeed, most Jewish philosophers throughout the ages have disagreed with the Rambam, as Rabbenu Bachye explains: “The Sages of the Talmud are of a different opinion. The experts in Kabbalah believe that there will be no more death after the resurrection of the dead. They base this primarily on Isaiah 25:8: He will destroy death forever.’”(Devarim 30:15)

According to the Kabbalists, the role of Techiyat haMetim is to repair what Adam had damaged when he ate from the Tree of Knowledge. In the Garden of Eden, spirituality and physicality were intertwined. Adam had the ability to talk to G-d while also eating, drinking and enjoying all the goodness of the Garden. His sin caused a permanent disconnection between the body and soul of Adam, and correspondingly between the physical and spiritual worlds. Death became the barrier between this world and the next, Olam Haze and Olam Haba.

While living in this world, a person can benefit from the material aspects of the world but cannot perceive G-d anymore, “For man shall not see Me and live.” (Shemot 33:20) Inversely, in Olam Haba there is no physicality but only a pure spiritual experience. We are told: “In Olam Haba there is no eating, no drinking…rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence.” (Berachot 17a)

According to this understanding of Techiyat haMetim, the ultimate purpose of our existence will be a restoration of the Garden of Eden experience. When the barrier of death will be removed from the world, Olam Haze and Olam Haba will be reunified, and it will be possible to see G-d here is this world.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, the greatest disciple of Rabbi A.I. Kook, explains: “The ultimate purpose is that not only the souls will benefit from the magnificent light of Olam Haba, but also here in Olam Haze there will not be any barrier to beholding the light of Olam Haba. The goal is that not only our souls will perceive G-d, but rather that [we will perceive Him with our eyes, as it says] ‘The Presence of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the Lord spoke.’ (Isaiah 40:5) The worlds (Olam Haze and Olam Haba) will be reunified [as it says], ‘And the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one.’ (Zechariah 14:9)” (Mei Marom 7, p. 15)

Perhaps this is one of the major unique beliefs of Judaism. While we believe in Olam Haba, and although it plays a central role in Jewish thought, our ultimate aspiration is Olam Haze. We wish to bring the Divine Presence back to this world and restore the eternity that dissipated with the sin of Adam. Maybe this is also the reason why Olam Haba is not mentioned even once in the Torah.

Our patriarchs and matriarchs began to restore this eternity by forming the nation of eternity - Am Yisrael - and hence, the descriptions of their death refer to them as living.

As Rav Kook explains: “Our temporary existence is only one spark of the glory of everlasting life. There is only one way to bring forth the wealth of goodness concealed within our worldly life, and that is through our connection to eternal life… The yearning for the glory of that eternity overwhelms death and wipes the tear from every eye” (Orot Ha-Kodesh II, p. 377)

Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana, is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, published by Urim Publications.