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.
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.
It's sometimes said that the author of Ecclesiastes, traditionally identified as King Solomon, is a cynic, but that's not so. On the contrary, his idealism is simply of the kind that places in a more proper perspective the worries and enthusiasms that occupy us during this life. In his own time, he recalls, "I acted in grand style: I built myself houses, I planted vineyards; I made myself gardens and orchards and planted in them every kind of fruit tree;.I bought slaves--male and female--and I acquired stewards; I also owned more possessions, both cattle and sheep, than all of my predecessors in Jerusalem." (2:4-7). And so on and on, but looking back he sees "it was clear that it was all futile and a vexation of the spirit-and there is no real profit under the sun" (2:11).
The only "profit" he does find is in eternal things, things you can take with you when you die: "The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is a man's whole duty. For God will judge every deed-even everything hidden-whether good or evil" (11:13-14). He warns us, as if from personal experience, that God will judge our deeds when we die.
In secular academic literature, Sukkot is dismissed as a harvest festival, irrelevant to modern folk who get our produce at the supermarket and who only barely register the coming of the reaping season. True, the festival week falls at the height of that season, but that's only fitting. While Sukkot draws attention to the eternal life, as we've seen, it also directs Jews to contemplate that the afterlife makes distinctions among categories of people. This becomes evident when you consider what the farmer actually does when he harvests: he is reaping the rewards of what, earlier, he had sown. Having sown goodness in their lives, virtuous folks will go on to the reward of their moral harvest; the wicked will go on theirs.
To advocates of secularism, the notion that in the end we cheat death seems absurd. But that unfashionable idea forms the theme not only of Sukkot but, really, of the whole Jewish festival season. It's the context that makes sense of the holidays, which fall as they do, in the order they do, for a good reason. Rediscovering Sukkot is the first step toward recovering a truth many of us have forgotten. Death is not just an end, but also a beginning.