Q. The Hallel says, “The dead praise not God, nor do those who go down to silence” (Psalm 115:17). How does this correlate to our belief in Olam Haba (the World to Come)?
A. Our Biblical ancestors saw that when a person died, they stopped breathing, moving and speaking. They were in a state of silence and were no longer able to utter praise to God. This thought appears frequently: Psalm 88:11, 94:17, etc. God Himself would lose out, in a sense, if we died. Therefore it would be to His advantage to keep us alive.
Samson Raphael Hirsch says in his commentary to T’hillim, “The purpose of God’s rule does not consist in death and destruction, but in the advancement of life and having men develop and unfold to the greatest possible extent… It is not the dead and those who go down in silence that proclaim His power. It is life, growth and development that declare His greatness and might”. (Commentary to Psalms, Eng. trans., p. 307).
How, then, can the Psalmist say, “Precious (yakar) in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who love Him” (Psalm 116:15)?
It may be that the verse is saying that the death of the pious is too precious to be easily allowed. According to another view, yakar is a euphemism and the meaning is that the death of the pious is grievous in the sight of God. The Midrash puts into the mouth of God the words, “Grievous it is for Me to say to the righteous that they must die. Grievous was it for Me to say to Abraham that he must die, seeing that he had proclaimed Me the Maker of heaven and earth, had gone down into the fiery furnace for My sake, and hallowed My name in My world”.
But a person still has to die, even a righteous person. According to the Midrash, God asks, “Had Abraham gone on living, how could Isaac have come into authority? And Jacob? Moses? Joshua? Samuel? David and Solomon?” The sages continue, “In truth, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let these depart to make way for the others.”
The questioner asks how the silence of death can correlate to Olam Haba, where the soul basks in the radiance of God’s glory (Ber. 17a), where the talmidei chachamim have no rest from their studies, and the intellect remains active. But there is no physical body in the World to Come, and the way the soul praises God or studies Torah is not physical. The Perek says, “‘When you awake, it (the Torah) shall talk with you’ (Prov. 6:9): ‘when you awake’ – in the future world” (Avot 6:9). But the way the Torah talks with us after death is non-physical.
The Baal Shem Tov asks, “Do you think there is such a difference between heaven and hell? Not at all; they are one and the same. Heaven, for the righteous, is to bask in the radiance of God. This is their reward. And what is the punishment of the wicked? They too will be brought to heaven to behold the radiance of the Divine Presence, but they will not know what to make of it. To experience the Presence of God but at the same time to recognise how distant one is from its reality – there is no greater anguish for a soul”.