The Journey of the Soul – Its Mission and the Afterlife

It has been one year since my mother, Fayga bas Tzvi Hirsch, passed away and we commemorate her first Yahrzeit on January 6, 2019, the 29th of Teves. In her honor, I would like to share some thoughts about the mission of the soul and what happens after a person passes away.

What is the Soul’s Mission?

A curious statement in the Talmud can provide an insight into the soul’s mission.

In Tractate Pesachim 87b, Rabbi Elazar said: “The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations only so that converts (גרים) would join them.” [1]

(ואמר רבי אלעזר לא הגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל לבין האומות אלא כדי שיתוספו עליהם גרים)

In his work Torah Ohr, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745 –1812) says this statement doesn’t make sense. He observes that during the Jewish people’s time in exile we have lost more Jews to assimilation and pogroms then we added through the small number of converts who joined our ranks.

The Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) provides an explanation. He points out that in Yevamot 97b, a convert is referred to as (שנתגייר גוי ולא גר שנתגייר) a “convert who converted and not a non-Jew who converted.”  The expression “convert who converted ” teaches that a sincere convert was never really a non-Jew, instead, a lost spark of godliness, a Jewish soul in a non-Jewish body.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman, explains that “lost sparks” are also scattered throughout the material world, and “making converts” means redeeming these sparks.[2]

Herein lies the mission of the soul.[3] The soul descends into a physical body so that it can fulfill the Torah’s commandments with material objects, thereby transforming the material world[4] into holiness - and proclaiming that God is everywhere.[5]

During my first eleven months of mourning, I studied portions of Mishna[6] three times a day. The final Mishna of Mikvaot 7:7 is read out loud before reciting the mourner’s Kaddish prayer.[7]

Regarding a [impure] needle (מחט) on the steps of a cave [which houses a mikveh], if one was moving the waters back and forth [by stirring the waters around with one's hands or feet], once a wave passes over it [the needle], it is pure.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994) explains that on a mystical level this legalistic teaching is describing the mission of the soul.

Briefly, he said that in the Kabbalah[8] the soul is referred to by many names, including “needle – מחט.” In the same way that a needle sews two separate garments together, the soul joins the spiritual world with the physical world. To accomplish this joining, the needle requires a hole and a thread.

A pin can pierce through a garment. However, to sew garments together, a needle needs a hole at one end to receive a thread. The hole represents the humility to accept the thread.[9]

The “thread” alludes to the strings of the tzitzis (and the entire body of Torah and mitzvos which they represent).[10] The Torah and mitzvos are the means by which we connect the world with God.[11]

To accomplish this, a Jew must be in exile – represented by the dark cave – and encounter the challenges of life. The “waves” of water passing over the needle allude to these challenges, which the Torah refers to as “raging waters[12] (Psalm 124:5).

The Rebbe concludes that by surmounting the challenges of life in exile, “such a ‘needle’ becomes pure, i.e., it becomes connected with God, the source of all purity, as alluded to in the verse, ‘the Mikvah of Israel is God ’” (Jeremiah 17:13).

In addition to elevating the physical world, exile can elevate and purify the soul.

Having described the mission of the soul in the body, it is meaningful to explore the makeup of the soul and what happens when it leaves the body.

What is the Makeup of the Soul and What Happen when it Leaves the Body?

In the Torah, three words are used to describe the soul as it vests itself in a body, Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama (נפש רוח נשמה).[13] They are found in the following passages:

The soul (life-nefesh) of the flesh is in the blood.” (כִּ֣י נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר֮ בַּדָּ֣ם הִוא֒)    (Leviticus 17:11)

The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the spirit (ruach) returns to God who gave it.”[14]

ְיָשֹׁ֧ב הֶעָפָ֛ר עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָ֑ה וְהָר֣וּחַ תָּשׁ֔וּב אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נְתָנָֽהּ))                              (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a soul (neshama) of life.”

 (וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים)                               (Genesis 2:7)

These three parts of the soul are alluded to in King Solomon’s statement, (נֵ֣ר יְ֭הוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם) “the candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27).

The two letters of the word candle (ner - נר) can be seen as an acronym for (נפש רוח) nefesh and ruach, and the word for neshama is found at the end of the verse in the word (נִשְׁמַ֣ת) neshmat.

Neshama mean “breath,” and ruach means “wind.” The word nefesh, from “vayinafash,” means “to rest” as in the following verse:

For six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.”

(כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ)                   (Exodus 31:17)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that the Torah’s use of the word “breath” to describe the Neshama, to teach that it comes from the essence of God, and he refers to it as a “part of God.”[15] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) provides additional insights into this metaphor: [16]

“God's exhaling a soul can be compared to a glassblower forming a vessel. The breath (neshama) first leaves his lips, travels as a wind (ruach) and finally comes to rest (nefesh) in the vessel.

Of these three levels of the soul, neshama is, therefore, the highest and closest to God, while nefesh is that aspect of the soul residing in the body. Ruach stands between the two, binding man to his spiritual Source. It is for this reason that Divine Inspiration is called Ruach HaKodesh in Hebrew.

The Torah is teaching us that the human soul came directly from God's innermost essence in the same way that a breath issues forth from a person's lungs and chest cavity. The rest of creation, on the other hand, was created with speech,[17] which is a lower level.”

We see that the lofty soul’s descent into a physical body serves a purpose: the elevation of the soul and the revelation of God’s presence in the most concealed aspects of the physical existence.[18]

What Happens when the Person Completes their Mission and Returns their Soul to God?[19]

Judaism teaches that the soul is now able to come closer to God’s essence than it could before its descent into the physical world. The Torah and mitzvos the person observed during their lifetime elevated the soul to a higher state of intimacy with God due to his or her having been connected to God’s will and wisdom while in a physical body.

This progression to a higher level of intimacy with God is alluded to in Zechariah 3:7, “If you go in My ways… then I will give you a place to move among [the angels] standing here.”[20]

It is also alluded to in the similarity of four Hebrew words:

  1. נשמה - Neshama - Soul
  2. שמן - Shemen – Oil
  3. משנה - Mishna – Teaching
  4. שמונה - Shemoneh - Eight 

The relationship between the Hebrew words for soul (neshama) and eight (shemoneh) alludes to the soul’s transcendent spiritual nature.[21] The connection between the Hebrew words for soul (neshama) and oil (shemen) provides a meaningful lesson. When oil is mixed with water, it rises to the top and floats. The more water there is in a vessel, the higher the oil rises. In the same way, the soul rises, riding on the accumulated Torah, which is compared to water,[22] it learned during its lifetime.

This elevation through learning is also indicated by the similarly of the word soul (neshama) and the word “mishna” which is specifically associated with teachings of Torah that elevate the soul.[23]

However, blemishes that the soul may have acquired while in a body need to be cleansed because they can obstruct the soul’s perception and appreciation of Godliness. The transitory cleansing of the soul is alluded to by King David in Psalm 16:10, (כִּ֤י לֹא־תַעֲזֹ֣ב נַפְשִׁ֣י לִשְׁא֑וֹל) “you will not abandon my soul to purgatory.[24]

Transgressions form blemishes that become obstacles between the soul and God, preventing the light of the soul from reconnecting to the source it came from.  As it says in Isaiah 59:2, “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God; your sins have made Him turn His face away and refuse to hear you ” (כִּ֤י אִם־עֲוֺנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ הָי֣וּ מַבְדִּלִ֔ים בֵּינֵכֶ֕ם לְבֵ֖ין אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם וְחַטֹּֽאותֵיכֶ֗ם הִסְתִּ֧ירוּ פָנִ֛ים מִכֶּ֖ם מִשְּׁמֽוֹעַ).

Sins are compared to a cloud that prevents us from seeing the sun. As it says in Isaiah 44:22, “I will wipe away your sins like a cloud and your transgression like mist ” (מָחִ֤יתִי כָעָב֙ פְּשָׁעֶ֔יךָ וְכֶעָנָ֖ן חַטֹּאותֶ֑יךָ).

Imagine trying to point a powerful laser at the sun. In the vacuum of outer space, it will travel uninterrupted and be absorbed into the sun. However, if we shine it from earth the specks of dust and moisture in the atmosphere impede it from reaching its goal. These specks represent the blemishes.

During one’s lifetime, one’s soul can be cleansed through repentance, known as Tshuvah.[25] Judaism refers to this cleansing process after death as “Gehenom.” It is not the eternal damnation of Greek mythology, but a temporary purgatory that purges the soul of its blemishes.

When the oil in a lamp is consumed, it enables a wick to burn and its flame to rise.  Similarly, the soul rises higher and returns to its source, empowered by the mitzvos observed in the material world, which are “consumed” and propel the soul to experience higher revelations of God’s divine light.

This novel explanation sheds meaningful light on why God is compared to a consuming fire, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire[26] (כִּ֚י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֵ֥שׁ אֹכְלָ֖ה ה֑וּא) Deuteronomy 4:22.

Our sages teach a valuable lesson,[27] based on the heartfelt reflection of King Solomon concerning death, (ה֖וּא ס֣וֹף כָּל־הָאָדָ֑ם וְהַחַ֖י יִתֵּ֥ן אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ) “it [death] is the end of every person, and the living should take to heart ” (Ecclesiastes 7:2), that we should increase in learning Torah and doing mitzvos (especially charity), in the memory of the departed.

May the merit of learning Torah and doing mitzvos elevate the soul of my mother Fayga bas Tzvi Hirsch to the highest levels of the heavenly Gan Eden.

May we also soon experience the ultimate reconnection with our departed loved ones[28] in the messianic age when, as we are promised in Isaiah 26:19, (יִֽחְי֣וּ מֵתֶ֔יךָ נְבֵלָתִ֖י יְקוּמ֑וּן הָקִ֨יצוּ וְרַנְּנ֜וּ שֹׁכְנֵ֣י עָפָ֗ר) “Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust![29]



פ''גע בת ר' צב' ה'רש


כ"ט טבת תשע"ח



[1] The Talmud gives numerous causes for the exile of the Jewish people, including murder, idolatry, sexual misconduct, and baseless hatred. As it says, "because of our sins we were exiled from our Land" (2 Kings 17:22-23). Although exile provides atonement for sin, גלות מכפרת (Sanhedrin 37b), this is not like the proactive reason for exile, to make converts.

[2] This is also expounded in the writings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) and Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809).

[3] A Jew’s mission, to draw godliness into a spiritually impoverished world, is alluded to in the manipulation of the letters in the Hebrew word for Jew “yehudi -יהודי.” The first three letters יהו are the same as the first letters of God’s transcendent name   ה - ו - ה - י, which is what we strive to reveal in this world.  Our Sages teach that a י represents godliness. A ד stands for the word “דלות – impoverished,” and its shape represents a person chasing after something it is lacking. In the word “yehudi ” this represents a Jew “chasing” after Godliness and wanting to draw in down into the world. Symbolically, when this is accomplished, the final י will be lowered to become a part of the ד, and it will be transformed into a letter ה, completing the spelling of God’s name,  ה - ו - ה - י .

[4] The spiritual evaluation includes the body and the animal soul.

[5] We learn about God’s absolute unity from a multitude of passages including, “Hear O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4), “There is nothing else besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35), and “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 45:6.)  When we complete the mission of revealing Godliness in the world, we will witness God’s unity on the physical plane, as it says, “God will be King over the whole earth. On that day God will be one, and His name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9), and Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5.)

[6] Mishna is the first compilation of the oral law, authored by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (approx. 200 C.E.)

[7] The central theme of the Kaddish prayer is the magnification and sanctification of God's name and not death.

[8] Kabbalah is the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Torah.

[9] It is an act of humility for a lofty spiritual soul to descend into a lowly physical body to fulfill its mission.

[10] Tzitzit are the strings tied to each corner of a four-cornered garment. Numbers 15:39 says you should “look at it and recall all the commandmentsand observe them.” Our Sages expound that the letters of wordציצית -tzitzit have a combined numerical value of 600, and there are 8 strings and 5 knots. 600+8+5=613 commandments in the Torah.

[11] Tanya Chapter 3: Torah and mitzvos are the will and wisdom of God, “the garments” that enable us to connect to God.

[12] Torah Ohr: Parashat Noach.

[13] The five names of the soul represent five ascending levels of awareness of God. The three lowest levels, Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama, are enclothed within the body and correspond to life, emotion, and intellect. The Kabbalah speaks of two additional higher levels of the soul, “chaya - חיה  ” and “yechidah – יחידה.” These are the soul’s outer dimensions, external to the body and encompassing it. Chaya reflects “consciousness of the divine life force,” and yechidah is “union with God.” For a more in-depth explanation see Rabbi Moshe Miller’s article, “Levels of Soul Consciousness” https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380651/jewish/Neshamah-Levels-of-Soul-Consciousness.htm

[14] Only the body, which is formed from inanimate matter, dies. The soul which was always alive continues to live. In physics, the First Law of Thermodynamics is that energy is never destroyed; it only assumes another form. If this is true about physical energy, it is even more applicable to a spiritual entity such as the soul.

[15] Tanya Chapter 2, (חלק אלוה ממעל ממש) based on Job 31:2.  

[16] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought.

[17] As it says, (כִּ֤י ה֣וּא אָמַ֣ר וַיֶּ֑הִי) “He spoke, and it was” (Psalm 33:9), and ( וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים) “and God said” (Genesis 1:3).

[18] God is everywhere and transcends the limitations of time and space, which are part of His creation.  The world conceals Godliness, alluded to as follows: The Hebrew word for world is “olam – עולם “ and shares the same root as the word “helem - העלם” which means “hidden” as in Leviticus 4:13,  “the matter is hidden from my eyes” (וְנֶעְלַ֣ם דָּבָ֔ר מֵעֵינֵ֖י).

I give the example of a skier who wears dark sunglasses to enable him to avoid snow blindness due to the intensity of light on the ski slope. The dark glasses limit and conceal the bright light that is reflecting off the snow. The light the skier perceives through the sunglasses appears different than the actual amount of light outside. The more concealment - if he was wearing welder’s goggles, for example - the more the light appears to be the exact opposite: i.e., total darkness. Similarly, when God conceals unlimited, infinite spirituality, we perceive the opposite, limited, finite physicality. Despite this perception, our mission is to proclaim God’s absolute unity and true reality.

[19] The soul’s departure from the body and spiritual ascent occur in stages which correspond to the different stages of Jewish mourning. For additional insights, I recommend watching, “The Soul and the Afterlife: Where do we go from Here?” by Rabbi Manis Friedman at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzFUXKk2B4I.

[20] The Hebrew reads, (אִם־בִּדְרָכַ֤י תֵּלֵךְ֙ … וְנָתַתִּ֤י לְךָ֙ מַהְלְכִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָעֹמְדִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה)

[21] Eight (shemoneh) represents something that transcends nature (i.e. beyond the natural order of the 7 days of the week, as in the miracle of Chanukah oil miraculously burning for 8 days), and in this case, “eight” indicates the spiritual nature of the soul.

[22] Rashi to Isaiah 55:1: (ה֤וֹי כָּל־צָמֵא֙ לְכ֣וּ לַמַּ֔יִם ) “all who are thirsty, come for water,” and Taanit 7a,Just as water leaves a high place and flows to a low place, so too, Torah...”

[23] When children live a life of Torah and mitzvahs, recite Mishna, and praises God in the Kaddish prayer, it gives life to the departed’ s soul. As it says, (מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים) “Just as his descendants are alive, he too is alive” (Taanit 5a).

[24] The soul enters Gehenom after the person dies. There are multiple dimensions of this experience. However, they cannot be understood in physical terms. For example, if a young child were caught doing something embarrassing and given a choice of two types of punishment, to show a video of what he did to his friends or receive painful corporal punishment, he would choose the former. When the soul is compelled to see the sins it did, this is extremely “psychologically” painful, more so than physical pain. However, certain extremely evil individuals may experience everlasting punishment. (Gittin 56b-57a)

[25]  Tshuva - returning to God through remorse, repentance, and resolve - removes sin while the person is still alive. The power of repentance is demonstrated in Hoshea 14:2, (שׁ֚וּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֥י כָשַׁ֖לְתָּ בַּעֲוֺנֶֽך) “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your sin,” and in Zechariah 1:3, (שׁ֣וּבוּ אֵלַ֔י…וְאָשׁ֣וּב אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם) “Return to Me… and I will return to you.”

[26]  Using the material world to elevate the soul is so fundamental to our mission, Tanya concludes with these very words.r

[27] Sifrei - Deuteronomy 21: Paragraph 210, as quoted by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in The Book of Our Heritage.

[28] Rabbi Yohonason Eybschutz (1690– 1764) on Berachos 18a, (Artscroll note 4 on 19a) explains, that under certain circumstances the departed can hear their living relatives. Additionally, it is taught in the Zohar 1:217b - 218b, that when a person departs this world he is greeted by the souls of his family and friends.

[29] In Maimonides' 13 principles of faith, we are taught that among the fundamental truths of Judaism is the belief in an “anointed” human messianic king, a messianic era (Ezekiel 37: 24-28), and the ultimate resurrection of the dead.

According to Ramban, Nachmanides - Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194–1270), and the Kabbalistic and Chassidic masters, during the era of resurrection which is the second stage of the messianic era, the reembodied soul will experience the highest levels of Godly revelation and comprehension.  It is interesting to note that recent scientific advances in DNA cloning confirm that bodies can be reconstructed. However, we don’t rely on this as proof, as it says in Isaiah 55:8, (וְלֹ֥א דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם דְּרָכָ֑י) “God’s ways are not your ways.