The Life of a Soul
There’s a major debate nowadays about when life begins.
Some say it starts at conception.
Some say it starts at birth.
In Jewish tradition, though, the fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from law or medical school!
Seriously speaking, the Jewish position on abortion is less about when life begins but rather about the health and welfare of the mother.
In Leviticus, it states:
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
You shall keep My laws and My rules, and live through them: I am יהוה.
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (27b) learns from this: that one should live by God’s commandments and not die by them. This verse serves as a source for the rule that one may violate a Torah prohibition to save a life.
Having children fulfills the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply. Yet if the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life, even psychologically, Jewish law has always protected the mother first.
But I’m not here to influence you about abortion; you’re entitled to your own opinions. I’m here to talk about life.
We ask, when does life begin? We could equally ponder when does life truly end? We’re gathered here today in prayer because we believe that the soul, our essence, actually lives on.
The Yizkor prayer states: By the merit of the charity money donated may their soul be bound up in the bond of life, with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah and with the other righteous men and women who are in Gan Eden (Paradise) and let us say Amen.
The El Ma’ale prayer adds, “Therefore, may the Merciful One shelter them in the shelter of God’s wings forever and bind their soul in the bond of eternal life.”
Belief in an afterlife is mentioned numerous times by the rabbis of the Talmud:
Rav sees the righteous sitting with their crowns upon their heads, basking in the splendor of the Divine Presence.
The Gemara Shabbat (152a) quotes a verse in Ecclesiastes (12:5), “For a person goes to his eternal home”, Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This teaches that each and every righteous person is given a dwelling place in the World-to-Come in accordance with his merit.
So life, existence, does not end after our body ceases to function. It’s just on a different plane, or for all you Marvel fans, a different Metaverse, one that we can’t perceive.
Yet the same tradition that says that life doesn’t end also says that life doesn’t begin at birth or conception either, as souls exist earlier than that.
Rav said, “Forty days before the fetus is even formed, a Heavenly voice boldly proclaims ‘the child of so and so is destined for the child of so and so’”.
Rabbi Yosei said: The Messiah, son of David, will not come until all the souls that are destined to inhabit physical bodies do so.
The Gemara Chagiga (12b) explains that there’s a special place in Heaven where: Spirits and souls that are to be born are found, as it is written in Isaiah (57:16): “For the spirit that enwraps itself is from Me, and the souls that I have made”
So our souls exist before they are bonded with a body, and they exist after they leave the body.
This means that life’s a cycle; it doesn’t end. We come to this world for a physical experience, and then our soul returns to its place. In some ways, it’s like an adventure we seek. Or as Shakespeare put it:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
And before and after our roles, we end up standing off stage.
Judaism posits that a human is a hybrid of body and soul.
The first prayers of the day recognize this:
Modeh Ani: I give thanks to You living and everlasting Sovereign, for You have restored my soul with mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.
The Elohai Neshama prayer says, “My God! the soul which You have given me is pure; You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me.
Who’s the subject in these prayers? Who’s the “me”? It must be the body. The body is given the soul.
Likewise, the Gemara in Niddah states: What does the Angel say to the fetus when it’s teaching it all about life: “And know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, and His ministers are pure, and the soul that He gave you is pure.”
This sounds as though the fetus, the body, is given a soul.
However, as I have explained throughout my years here, our spiritual understandings are constantly evolving.
New insights into spirituality have it the other way around; the soul manifests the body:
The soul doesn’t enter the body. The body is enveloped by the soul.
The body does not house the soul. It is the other way around.
Spiritual seekers adore quantum physics, for so many of its findings support spiritual beliefs.
Max Planck, one of the fathers of quantum physics, said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
The traditional view of spiritual life is that the fertilized zygote gains a soul at some point. I tell you, it’s the other way around: the soul entering the world brings about the fertilized zygote. “Forty days before the fetus is even formed, a Heavenly voice boldly proclaims ‘the child of so and so is destined for the child of so and so’.” The body comes to be, because a soul needs to take the stage, to live in our physical world.
Max Planck is also quoted as saying, “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”
The book “Conversations with God” phrases it this way:
That Which Is Always Alive simply shapes itself into a new form—a new physical form. That form is charged with living energy, the energy of life. Life—if you are calling life the energy that I Am—is always there. It is never not there. Life never ends, so how can there be a point when life begins?
If life, a soul, is always existent, this means that our loved ones are much closer to us than we think.
We are ‘on-stage”, and they are just off to the side.
I started a bereavement group in February of 2021. At the time, because of Covid, I was doing a funeral every week for about 6-7 weeks. I figured people could use a safe place to talk and share their pain with others.
One woman who has been coming for a while related that her deceased husband’s favorite movie was on TV. For a long time, she avoided TV altogether, for television was one of her husband’s favorite pastimes, and it pained her too much to watch. But this night, she watched his favorite movie. I asked her, how did you manage it? She replied, “I imagined that he was there watching it and enjoying it with me.”
I believe he was. Souls don’t die. And since they’re not in the physical realm, they’re not limited by physical structures. Call upon a soul, and immediately that soul is next to you.
I use this technique all the time now with my grandfather. When I was a child, my grandfather used to take me on long bike rides. I cherished our quality time together. Even though he passed when I was only 13, biking has remained one of my favorite activities. The other day, I was riding, and I could swear, I perceived my grandpa on his three-speed cruiser riding alongside me. Was it insanity, a daydream, a wish? Or is it that souls don’t die, and my grandfather expressed his love for me while I was biking? Now I invite him to ride with me all the time.
While life in this world is finite, it truly never begins nor ends; it just takes a different form. And we can always connect with our loved ones, whether a person was buried or cremated, whether we’re close to their grave or not.
This Yizkor, try to imagine your loved one next to you. I promise you they will be there. When you’re at home, in pain or joy, wish for your loved one, and they are indeed with you.
Henry Scott-Holland wrote a poem, “Death is nothing at all”
It’s written from the perspective of the deceased:
All Is Well
Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other,
that we are still.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
 Rav used to say: The World-to-Come is not like this world. In the World-to-Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence (Brachot 17a)
 Tractate Sanhedrin 22a והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד בת קול יוצאת ואומרת בת פלוני לפלוני
 Walsch, Neale Donald. The Complete Conversations with God (Conversations with God Series) (p. 619). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland