There is one thing we can be sure of in our lives: sooner or later, we will die. If there is such certainty about the fate of every person on this planet, why does the fear of death haunt humanity? What if dying is not as bad as we think? By solving the mystery of what happens after we die, we can find comfort and clarity.
According to a recent Chapman University survey of American fears, 20.3 % of Americans are either “afraid” or “very afraid” of dying, and nearly twice as many (almost 40%) dread losing a loved one. Whether or not we fear death, the simple notion of stepping into the unknown is daunting. Yet what remains clear is that the physical body perishes and gradually disintegrates until it completely vanishes.
How Can We Make Sense of Dying?
It seems as if death robs us of our independence, our very selves, everything we have acquired and done in our lives. Even passing on our achievements and assets that we gather in our lives to our offspring will fade away as one day they will also leave this world. Since death is a phenomenon beyond our comprehension and remains something over which we have absolutely no control, we naturally try to oppose it.
However, paradoxically, in recent years we have witnessed a startling global increase in suicide rates as a consequence of people’s inner emptiness and lack of satisfaction with life. World Health Organization statistics show that out of its 183 member countries, the United States had the seventh largest percentage increase in suicide rates between 2000 and 2016, rising nearly 25%. Every day in the US, an average of 123 suicides go on record, although the actual number is considered to be higher because many cases go unreported since suicide remains culturally taboo. In 2017 alone, the suicide prevention helpline answered over 2 million calls from people looking for confidential crisis counseling.
Particularly in today’s world, problematic conditions in all areas of life are urging us to develop higher awareness about our existence. From a very early age, humanity now asks: “What are we living and dying for? What is the meaning of life? What is the point of all this suffering? Why are we here?” Many people who find no satisfying responses to these discomforting questions, and most importantly, when the sources of happiness and fulfillment dry up, simply give up.
Despite this pressing reality, the basic instinct to survive is still our most powerful driving force. The instinctive impulse to fear death is completely normal, but when it becomes severe it can transform into extreme anxiety, panic and distress, a phenomenon that has become known in medical circles as thanatophobia (lit. “fear of death”).
But is there really a reason to fear death? Is it possible to know exactly what is beyond the barrier of death, without resorting to unverified theories and beliefs? If we could, then perhaps there would be no need to fear death, and we could develop a much more balanced and conscious approach to our lives?
The Question of the Soul
According to the wisdom of Kabbalah, there is no reason to fear death because, as we conceive it, death does not exist. It applies only to the vegetative and animal realms, not to the human level.
What then happens when we die? Here is where we encounter the major questions in relation to life and death: Do we have a soul or not? Are we born with a soul, or do we acquire one when we die? Also, if we don’t have a soul, then can we obtain one during our lifetime?
According to the wisdom of Kabbalah, we are born soulless, and if we don’t attain a soul during our lifetime, then we also die soulless. In order to experience the eternal world, the harmony and balance that come from living in the soul, we must obtain the soul during our lifetime. Kabbalah explains that we are given this life and future incarnations so that we would obtain our soul.
How does it work?
Lying deep in our desires is a “seed of the soul.” This spiritual seed, also known as the “point in the heart,” is a spark that makes possible the birth of spiritual life—the attainment of the soul.
Over generations of human development, this point in the heart has been latent, waiting for the time when it would be able to blossom. According to The Book of Zohar, starting in our generation, this point in the heart would start making its demands in vast masses of people. It becomes expressed in us as feelings of meaninglessness, emptiness and dissatisfaction with merely chasing after life’s corporeal pleasures, and as questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives.
Eventually, these feelings of dissatisfaction with corporeal life and questions about its meaning lead us to the means by which we can develop this tiny desire for spirituality, the point in the heart, into a great desire where we can live in our soul during our lifetime. Essentially, this is a process of exiting our corporeal, self-aimed desires and entering into spiritual, altruistic ones. When we reach this heightened state, nothing ties us down to our corporeal world any longer. Although the biological death of the corporeal body remains, the soul we acquire during our lives is eternal because it exists in the altruistic desire, outside the egoistic, corporeal selves that perish.
From this new vantage point, we feel the life in the soul—the altruistic desire—much greater than the corporeal life we live, where we constantly try to fulfill ourselves. Somewhat similar to how parents feel their lives in their children’s fulfillment and success, we acquire a feeling of life in others.
While we are living in an era where this point in the heart is starting to awaken among masses, we will eventually reach a state where the whole of humanity will enter the spiritual world and live in the eternal soul—where life is endless, and where there is no fear but only joy and freedom. Yet the question remains: We will undergo this development with awareness and understanding of what we’re dealing with, consciously developing our soul, or will we increasingly suffer due to our lack of awareness? It is my hope that everyone will discover the path of awareness—the wisdom of Kabbalah—and enter the process of soul’s discovery, alleviating the need for all kinds of personal, social and global-scale crises to bring us to that awakening.
Featured in The Times of Israel