And the days of Israel drew near to die. – Genesis 47:29
The Days Stand Still
Every encounter with death amplifies our sense of death’s eternity and infinity on one hand, and life’s finitude and transience, on the other. Such feelings can lead to a blasé approach to this world, based on the reasoning that this life is but a springboard for the true life, after death.
The Zohar on Parashat Vayeĥi, in its discussion of Jacob’s death, reveals the secret of eternal life. But, wonder of wonders, eternal life, according to the Zohar, is attained in this world, not the next. The Zohar does not posit some magical object, such as Harry Potter’s Philosopher’s Stone, that has the power to lengthen our lives. Increased longevity, the Zohar says, brings one no closer to defeating death, for even if one were to live a thousand years, on one’s deathbed one would still feel as if life had lasted no more than a single day (Zohar, Vayeĥi 223b). Rather, the Zohar teaches us, eternal life can be attained on this earth, and is a function not of the number of years one lives, but of the manner in which one conducts one’s life:
- Yose said, “…For it is not written, ‘The day of Israel drew near to die,’ but rather ‘days’ (Gen. 47:29). Now, does a person die on several days? In a single moment, he dies and departs from the world. However, we have learned as follows: When the blessed Holy One desires to retrieve the spirit, all those days in which a human has existed are convened before Him and reckoned…. Happy is the share of the human being whose days draw near the King without shame, without one of those days being thrust out.” (Zohar, Vayeĥi 221b)
The Zohar opens with a question: why does the Torah say “days,” when death takes place in a single moment of a single day? It explains that the verse is not concerned with the date of death, but rather with what transpires at the moment of death (which the Zohar tenderly describes as the time at which God recalls to Him a person’s spirit). When people die and ascend to heaven, every one of their days on earth ascends with them – for good or ill. They are not, as we tend to think, passing shadows; rather, each and every day, and the content with which one imbues it, remains with one forever.
To a certain extent, it seems as though this outlook is true before death as well. We are each what our life stories have made of us, what our past experiences, choices, and deeds have shaped us into, and even when we cannot recall the past, or be aware of the present, it remains etched in our bodies and souls. Yet, in the Zohar, this fact goes beyond psychological insight. Days have existential and real meaning, based upon which the Zohar defines the relation between days and an individual’s identity. But before we try to understand the Zohar, let us examine the underpinnings of these ideas. In Judaism, every person has a soul, an inner essence that is eternal, existing before one is born and persisting after death. In this context it is worth mentioning the author Mary Russell, who said that the sense of desolation that one experiences when looking at a corpse is the ultimate proof for the existence of a soul in the living.
The Zohar seeks to understand the meaning of the soul’s sojourn in this world, i.e. the difference between its prenatal state and its postmortem state. In other words, the Zohar is after the meaning of life. The prevailing outlooks are variations on the theme of divine recompense, whereby a person who chooses good is rewarded, while one who chooses evil is punished. But the Zohar posits a far more existential approach: each day of one’s life becomes an eternal “garment” for one’s soul. It emerges that one’s earthly life is eternal in the sense that it is a coalescence of all of one’s days in this world, which accompany the soul for eternity. The body may rot away, but one’s identity is defined by one’s inner essence and the manner in which one lived.
Body, Soul, and In Between
The Zohar posits a novel answer to the nagging question of what a person is, of what I am. Some would answer that a person is composed of body and soul, and that because the body’s existence is transitory, a person’s true identity is the soul. There are spiritual outlooks, especially in the East, that seek to slough off this world and all materiality, uncovering the inner soul. The Zohar, however, claims that man is not a hybrid of soul and body, but rather an amalgamation of soul and life. The body may disappear, but our life stories – in the sense we described above – endure forever.
This conception of life after death recalls the synthesis of “being” and “doing”: in this case, the element of “being” is represented by the soul, the inner essence, while “doing” is one’s life story. This insight can help us resolve a paradox in the Mishna:
- Yaakov says, “This world is like a hallway before the World to Come. Fix yourself in the hallway so you may enter the drawing room.” He would say, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the World to Come. And one hour of pleasure in the World to Come is better than all the time in this world.” (Avot 4:16–17)
At first, it seems as though R. Yaakov is seeking to denude life of its existential meaning: the world, he appears to say, is only a means for attaining real meaning in the future, in the World to Come, where even a single hour of pleasure surpasses the entirely of this world. But then he pivots, saying that, in fact, the hallway surpasses the drawing room in importance, that “one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the World to Come.”
According to R. Yaakov, even though some aspects of existence in the World to Come are more exalted, this world has an important advantage – the capacity for action. It is only through acting that people can change, and that ability has repercussions for one’s eternal identity.
An outlook that lends ultimate reality to each and every day is very demanding. One must take responsibility and live every moment precisely, to imbue it with positive, not mundane, content. The Zohar offers a picturesque description of the danger of falling short:
…[E]very single day a herald emerges and proclaims – and no one pays attention! We have learned: When a human being is created, on the day he issues into the world, all his days arise in their existence. They come flying through the world, descending, alerting the human – day by day, individually. When a day comes to alert him, if a person commits a sin on that day before his Lord, that day ascends in shame, bears witness, and stands alone outside. (Zohar, Vayeĥi 224a)
According to the Zohar, it is not only that a herald emerges every day, but that every day is itself a herald. Every day is a potential, waiting to be actualized. It cautions the individual to live it wisely, but sometimes, due to carelessness, the potential is squandered.
The movie Groundhog Day is about a man who wakes up every morning, only to discover that it is yesterday, which he had already completed. At first he fails to progress past that day, and is condemned to live it over and over again – until he learns to live it right. In real life, sadly, there are no do-overs. Every day is a unique opportunity that one can either actualize or squander.
The Zohar goes on to explain that when the Torah says Adam and Eve “knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7) after eating of the fruit, it means that they were without days to wear as garments, for they had sinned on their very first day in the world. In contrast, when the Torah says that Abraham was “stricken with age” (Gen. 24:1), the Zohar interprets it to mean that he was surrounded by his life’s days.
The Zohar teaches us the nature of eternal life, and how to shape ours. Only in this world do we have the duty and privilege to forge ourselves. Our identity emerges out of the totality of our lives, and is solidified for eternity when we die, lending everlasting meaning to each day that went into it.
 Mary Russell, Children of God (New York: Villard, 1998), 400.
 The Hebrew, “ba bayamim,” can be interpreted to mean “coming with days.”