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Understanding Life by Understanding Death

Topic: Kabbalistic Concepts | Posted:October 17, 2012

This week’s Parashah is, of course, the story of the generation of the flood. However, the Zohar explains that this portion also has within it the secrets to understanding the process our soul goes through the moment it leaves this world. Understanding this process gives us a greater understanding of how to direct and lead our lives.

Kabbalah teaches there are two ways to leave this world. One is through the complete transformation of Desire to Receive for the Self-Alone to the Desire to Share. A person can, like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the great kabbalists, go through a process where their soul leaves their body and completely rejoins and unifies with the Light of the Creator, achieving what Rav Ashlag calls devekut. When a soul leaves a body in devekut, in complete union, this is called the Kiss of Death; there is no pain or darkness. The body simply reconnects with the Light of the Creator.

Unfortunately, if a person has not transformed from the Desire to Receive for the Self-Alone to the Desire to Share, then there is a different process he goes through at death. The Gemara tells us that when a person is on his deathbed, he looks up and sees an entity full of eyes with a sword. At the tip of the sword is what brings about physical death, called the potion of death. When he sees the entity full of eyes, the person becomes upset – it’s important we understand that it doesn’t say he becomes fearful – he becomes upset, becomes shaken up by what he sees, by this entity full of eyes. He opens up his own mouth, and ingests this potion of death. From that he dies.

The kabbalist Rabbi Natan Adler has an explanation of this story. He explains that there are two categories of actions that lead a person towards this type of death. One is ta’avah – the desire to take something for myself even though it does not help anybody else. The other is ga’avah – ego; the need to have people treat me with the respect I think I deserve, to have people treat me as I think I should be treated, becoming angry if they don’t treat me that way. Rabbi Adler asks, what is the basis of these actions? The answer - it is the eye, our physical eyes; I see the way this person treats me. I see the way this person acts towards me. I see what this person’s done to me. The eyes come from the root of each one of these categories: either ta’avah, taking in – I see this, I want it all for myself, or ga’avah, ego- I see he’s not treating me right, I see he’s not acting in the way he should be acting towards me. Every single one of these actions creates an eye, an eye that makes up the entity of eyes we see at our deathbed.

Therefore, and this is a beautiful and amazing secret - a person thinks that there’s a concept called the Angel of Death that brings about death. However, that is not the case. When a person is born into this world he has the power to live forever. There is no force of death that can touch him. We, unfortunately, create our own Angel of Death. When a person has done enough actions of ta’avah and ga’avah, when he has created enough of these eyes, reaching a critical mass of eyes built by his own hands and actions, the Angel of Death is revealed - his own personal Angel of Death that he has created.

Then what happens right before he leaves this world? The individual becomes shaken up when he sees the entity of these eyes. Not because he’s afraid of death or because he sees the Angel of Death, but rather because he sees what he has done. A person, before he leaves this world, sees the eyes. He opens up his own mouth because he realizes, “wow, I’ve caused all this destruction and darkness and pain to myself and others, I see all the actions of Desire to Receive for the Self-Alone, all the actions of ego that I did which created these eyes. Certainly I need to go through another incarnation. I need to leave this world and come back.” The individual opens up his own mouth and ingests the potion of death…. because he realizes.

It’s a beautiful and important understanding: if we want to know how to live, we have to know this negative process of death – because we have the power to avoid it. If we continue to act in ways of the ego, of Desire to Receive for the Self-Alone, then we keep building and strengthening our own Angel of Death with the eyes we are creating. However, by understanding this process and continually choosing to transform our own Desire to Receive for the Self-Alone to the Desire to Share, we have the power to take away all those eyes and to achieve our own devekut, our own rejoining with the Light of the Creator.

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