For the week ending 28 January 2017 / 1 Shevat 5777

Life Before Death

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Andrew

Dear Rabbi,

My uncle recently passed away after a prolonged illness and many of those who were close to him who accompanied him throughout his illness, hospice and death noticed an elevated, spiritual “feeling” that surrounded him that strangely seemed to increase as he got sicker and sicker. Another thing we noticed is that he seemed to have a surge of life toward the end, which gave the impression that he might rally back to health — even though we knew that wasn’t possible in his condition — and then he suddenly passed away. I am wondering if you have any explanation for what many of us perceived with our own eyes and have no doubt that it was real.

Dear Andrew,

I offer my sincere condolences to you and your family over the loss of your uncle who was clearly dear to you all.

Regarding your sensing a gradual “spiritualization” as he progressed through his illness, an explanation might be as follows:

The great rabbi and kabbalist of Tzefat, Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-82), in his Reishit Chochma (Sha’ar HaKedusha 15:57), describes different approaches to eating. The lowest level is that of one who consumes food and drink merely to satisfy his bodily desires and vitality. Such eating is very physical and leads one to coarseness and physicality, devoid of spiritual sensitivity.

The righteous, however, who consume food and drink with the elevated intention of deriving life and vitality for serving G-d, transform eating to an elevating spiritual experience where even small amounts of food release sufficient energy for several days.

A third category of consumption and its effect on a person pertains to those who are severely ill. In cases where the person is so sick and weak that he can’t even eat or drink at all, the body is sustained by “feeding” off of itself. In such a case the person’s life is maintained by consuming his own blood and vital force. This last stage, writes Rabbi de Vidas, is a very ethereal form of sustenance, which is manifested as spiritual elevation even by people who are not exceptionally righteous.

Regarding the surge of life you noticed before the onset of death, ancient Jewish sources attribute this to the appearance of the Divine Presence which envelops a person before death in order to escort the soul to the Heavenly realm.

Shortly before Jacob’s death the Torah relates (Gen. 47:31), “And Jacob bowed himself upon the head of the bed”. Rashi explains that Jacob thereby turned himself toward the Shechina, the Divine Presence. The Talmud (Shabbat 12b) states, “One who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or on a chair, but should wrap himself (in a tallit) and stand in front of the person, since the Divine Presence is above the head of the sick”. The Zohar (Vayechi 218b) further reveals, “When a man is about to die, and Judgment hovers about him so he would depart from the world, a supernal spirit is added to him that he did not have during his lifetime. When it hovers about him and cleaves to him he is able to see what he never saw in his days, due to the additional spirit in him. When the spirit is added to him, he sees and then departs from this world. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘You shall add to their spirit (where the Hebrew term ‘tosef rucham’ is understood literally as ‘add’ rather than ‘gather’), they die, and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29).

From these sources we see that the appearance of the Divine Presence to the soul shortly before death adds temporary vitality and vision to the dying, which gives the impression of increased strength and lucidity. But this surge of life before death is only short-lived, and heralds the passing over of the soul from this realm to the next.

The Midrash (Ber. Rabba 62) adds that before death one is given a glimpse of the World-to-Come, by teaching: “The reward of the righteous is in the future world, and while they are still alive G-d shows them what they will attain. They glimpse at it, their souls are satiated and they sleep.” There are numerous reasons for this preview: To spare one the fear and uncertainty of death; to reward the body here for its role in perfecting the soul; to give the body a glimpse of what awaits it upon Resurrection; to add from the holy to the profane — since the World-to-Come is like Shabbat, just as we add from Shabbat to Friday, so holiness is added from the World-to-Come to this world.

Based on these teachings the Zohar (Vayechi 226a) makes a fascinating observation: “When a man departs from the world…his eyes see certain things, as we have explained in relation to the verse: ‘For no man shall see Me and live’ (Ex. 33:24), that men do not see in their lives what they see in their death. His eyes are opened to the sight they have just seen (i.e. the Divine Presence and one’s portion in the World-to-Come), and those standing by should put a hand on his eyes and close them….When the eyes remain open to this precious vision, if he has a son, the son should be the first to put his hand over his eyes and close them. As it says, ‘And Joseph shall put his hand on your eyes’. For an unholy sight (i.e. the dead body) is to come before him, and the eye that beheld the supernal holy sight must not look at the other sight.”

Thus we see from ancient Jewish mystical sources why the demise of the body engenders the strengthening of the soul, and why, paradoxically, there seems to be a resurgence of life shortly before death.

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