Death is part of life, yet it brings feelings of loss. When we reflect on the passing of loved ones, or on our own mortality, we can't help but ask, "What happens to us immediately upon our death?"
Jewish tradition, talks of the soul, which is eternal, and after the body dies enters what our ancient sages called olam haba, the World to Come. The ancient rabbis and medieval mystics described it as a non-earthly existence where one could experience out-of-body sensations, being greeted by loved ones, being bathed in divine light, attaining wisdom, undergoing a final life accounting, and being enveloped with a sense of peace and tranquility.
In many ways this realm is strikingly similar to the "Near Death Experiences" reported by revived comatose patients. Here are six examples:
1. Out-of-Body Experience
People who report a Near Death Experience (NDE) often speak of an out-of-body experience, watching from above what is happening below, such as doctors working on their bodies or loved ones conversing by their side.
Jewish texts also describe the soul as separating from the body after death and hovering or resting above.
"I had a floating sensation and I felt myself get out of my body, and I looked back and I could see myself on the bed below and there was no fear. I was not in the least bit upset or frightened. It was just a tranquil feeling." (Raymond Moody, Life After Life)
"But you, go on to the end; you shall rest, and arise to your destiny at the end of the days." (Daniel 12:12)
"For three days after death the soul hovers over the body intending to reenter it." (Lev. Rabbah 18:1)
2. Greeted by Loved Ones
People reporting NDEs commonly speak of experiencing deceased relatives and friends welcoming and guiding them into this new world. One comatose person reported seeing a friend whom he thought was still alive, only to find out after he recovered that this friend had died in an accident while he was in his coma.
In Midrash, the rabbis talked about angels that welcome the soul after it has departed the body. (Pesikta Rabbatai 2:3) The mystics add that, in addition to angels, the souls of loved ones who have died are also
present to welcome the newly arrived soul.
"They were all people I had known from my past life, but who had passed on before...my grandmother and a girl I had known when I was in school, and many other relatives and friends. I felt that they had come to protect or guide me...almost as if I were coming home, and they were there to greet or welcome me." (Life After Life)
"At the hour of a man's departure from this world, his father and relatives gather round him, and he sees them and recognizes them, and likewise all with whom he associated in this world, they accompany his soul to the place where it is to abide." (Zohar 1, 217b)
3. Seeing Divine Light
People who report NDEs often recount seeing an unearthly bright, warm, welcoming, loving light.
The Jewish mystics taught that "No person dies before he sees the Shechinah," the feminine conception of God, characterized by a loving and nurturing radiance. According to the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, "When a man is on the point of leaving this world…the Shechinah shows herself to him, and then the soul goes out in joy and love to meet the Shechinah" (Zohar III, 53a).
"I knew I was dying and that there was nothing I could do about it, because no one could hear me….All this made me feel very bad at first, but then this really bright light came….And it gave off heat, I felt a warm sensation….The light spoke to me….I felt really good—secure and loved. (Life After Life)
"In the World to Come there is no eating or drinking, nor jealousy, or animosity or rivalry—but the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the radiance of the Shechinah." (Talmud Brachot 17a)
4. Attaining Wisdom
Many of those who report NDEs talk about gaining instant wisdom. They were able to comprehend thoughts and concepts in ways they never could—as if their souls had been limited by the human mind until, freed from the physical constraints of the brain, they could finally understand the mysteries of the universe.
The Talmud (Niddah 30b) tells us that when a baby is born, an angel pushes on his upper lip, creating a dent, so that he forgets all he saw and knew previously as a soul. That knowledge returns when the soul separates from the human body.
"I felt all-knowing for a few minutes. Suddenly everything seemed to make perfect sense." (Kenneth Ring, Lessons from the Light)
"In the World-to-Come there is no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies... The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body." (Talmud Ta'anit 11a)
5. A Final Accounting
Many people who report NDEs talk of undergoing a life review. Aided by their initial greeter and/or other spiritual beings, they come to see where they did wrong and what they could have done better. "The final accounting" became an opportunity for them to learn from their errors and become a better person.
Judaism teaches the existence of a Book of Life in which all of our human deeds, bad and good, are recorded. On Yom Kippur, we put our choices in perspective as we each imagine the balance sheet of our lives.
"When the light appeared...he said, 'What do you have to show me that you've done with your life?'...All of a sudden I was back early in my childhood....From then on it was like I was walking from the time of my very life then, right up to the present." (Life After Life)
"When a man departs to his eternal home, all his deeds are enumerated before him." (Talmud Ta'anit 11a)
"Angelic messengers help the person complete the process of life review by counting up the days that a man has lived, the sins that he has committed and all the works that he has accomplished." (Zohar I:79a)
6. Experiencing Peace
Many of us are scared to think of what will happen to us after we die.
Reassuringly, people who report having experienced NDEs and Jewish texts speak of our souls going to a place of serenity, beauty, and love.
"The most wonderful feelings came over me—feelings of peace, tranquility, a vanishing of all worries." (Life After Life)
"But the souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise, they did appear to die, but they are at peace." (Wisdom of Solomon 3:2)
These glimpses into the afterlife can offer valuable lessons for living.
People who report NDEs often speak of being told they must return to Earth because they have more work to do. They talk of their lives having new purpose: "It's given me…a determination to help other people....I was sent back because I've got work to do for God" (The Journey Home).
And they talk of experiencing the life review as awareness of what they could have done differently and better. They learn to be more attuned to how their actions affect others. After they return, they have different priorities and their lives take on new meaning.
The beauty of Judaism is that all of these lessons are available to us through our sacred texts. We are taught to care for the stranger, to seek peace, to pursue justice, to work towards making the world a better place. Instead of a life review in the olam haba, we are each asked to do our own life review during the High Holy Days, to see what we could have done better and what needs changing still. Each one of us has the possibility of integrating these lessons into our lives without having to undergo
a Near Death Experience.
Rabbi Michele Brand Medwin, OD, is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York; author of A Spiritual Travel Guide to the World of God-Part I: Packing for the Journey and Part II-God Questions on the Journey; and a student at HUC-JIR's Doctor of Ministry Program for Pastoral Counseling. Previously she served as an optometrist for 13 years.