Beliefnet
While everyone knows the emphasis Christianity places on the belief that our spiritual existence continues after death, I'm still amazed at how many people, including many Jews, don't realize that Judaism is no less emphatic on the same point. Lots of Jews think their ancestral religion assumes that when you're dead, you're dead, when in fact Judaism envisions an eternal heavenly reward, coupled with, where appropriate, punishment in hell, albeit not eternal.If you're surprised to hear that, the festival of Sukkot will clarify things for you. Starting September 29 this year, the seven-day festival is nothing less than a celebration of eternal life.

Classical Jewish sources attest to this belief in continued existence after death. Traditionally, for two thousand years, Jews have prayed three times daily for the resurrection of the dead, which will take place after the appearance of the Messiah. The Talmud's tractate Rosh Hashanah has the clearest account of how, beyond the grave, good people are sorted from the bad ones, with the former going on to their reward, the latter to their punishment for a period of up to 12 months. For a very special evil elite--the Osama bin Ladens of this world, one imagines--punishment is eternal.

The Jewish season of High Holy Days that we're now immersed in - Rosh Hashanah followed in quick succession by Yom Kippur and Sukkot - can best be understood as a month-long review-in-miniature of the passage from birth to death to eternal life.

The New Year, Rosh Hashanah stands for birth, commemorating the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings--their "birth." The sounding of the shofar (ram's horn) on the holiday simulates the sound of a baby crying, the music of birth.

Ten days later in the calendar comes Yom Kippur, which simulates death. That's what fasting is about. After 25 hours without food or water, you feel like death --and you look that way too, pale and dried out. The day has a characteristic color: white, recalling the whiteness of the corpse. The Torah covers are all white. Men and women typically wear white clothing, while some men actually wear death shrouds.

On Yom Kippur, Jews chant aloud the account in Leviticus of how in the ancient Temple service the priest dispatched a scapegoat, a goat with the people's sins symbolically laid upon him, to the wilderness of "Azazel" (16:8-10). That strange word, Azazel, alludes to the Satan--not a mythological being with horns and a tail but some negative place (meaning literally, "accuser") in each person's soul, identified in the Talmud with the impulse to sin and with the Angel of Death (Baba Batra 16a). By employing the decoy of the scapegoat, what we do to this inward Angel of Death is fake him out--leaving us to escape his grasp. We cheat death.

Which brings us to Sukkot, with the joy of death escaped. Throughout the holiday, the color green is emphasized, the color of life, life regained. For a week, in the jolly company of friends and family members, Jews eat meals in a temporary hut (sukkah) in the backyard. Besides hanging out in the sukkah, with green branches for a roof, the other commandment of the festival is each morning to wave a peculiar bunch of tree branches together, along with a citron fruit, as the Bible prescribes (Leviticus 23:40). In Jewish law, whether or not your bunch of branches is fit for use is determined by whether they have green, life, in them.

How do we know the sukkah and the emphasis on green point to the life after death, and not just to our ordinary earthly life? Because, as the Talmud makes clear, eating in the sukkah is done in anticipation of the reward planned for the good in the next world. They will rejoice under an enormous sukkah made from the skin of a primordial sea creature, the Leviathan (Baba Batra 75a). There they will meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the rest of the Biblical pantheon of heroes--those righteous figures whose spirits, it's said, commune, as guests, with those who eat in the sukkah in the present world. The Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, includes for each day of the festival unique prayers to say in welcome of these guests (ushpizin) to our sukkah. The point is to offer a taste of the reward stored up in the next existence, in the Garden of Eden where the Biblical patriarchs are already comfortably ensconced.

In the world beyond death, the wicked will also have their chance in the sukkah. Elsewhere the Talmud relates how on their judgment day, the bad guys will plead their own case. God will give them a last chance to show their merit by fulfilling an "easy commandment." All they will have to do is build a sukkah and spend a little time there. Yet, having built the humble structure, the wicked will spitefully and disgustedly kick it over, thus sealing their fate (Avodah Zarah 3a).

On the Sabbath falling in the middle of the week of Sukkot, Jews read the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. Why now? Because the book's realistic assessment of the futility of our mundane cares and obsessions in the long perspective--"What profit does man have for all his labor which he toils beneath the sun?" (1:3)--represents a wisdom assimilated only after death. The whole book reads as if the author were looking back on his life on earth from the viewpoint of the next life.

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