Acharei Mos – Focusing on Greatness to Avoid Punishment

What is the punishment of kares? Rabbeinu Bachye goes into much great length discussing this topic at the very end of this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mos.

“For anyone who commits any of these abominations, the persons doing so shall be cut off from the midst of their people” (Vayikra 18:29).

Rabbeinu Bachye shares that there are 3 types of kares, which literally means being “cut off.”  There are 2 kinds in the first level:
 1a. Kares to the body in years, when one lives half of his lifetime originally decreed by Hashem.
1b. Kares to the body for days, where a person who already lived most his life then committed a sin punishable by kares, so he won’t live out the days set by Hashem for the rest of his lifetime. Indication of this punishment is a 3-day gradual death.
2. Kares to the soul.
3. Kares to the body and soul.
HaChacham Rebbi Avraham is of the opinion that kares of the soul is where the soul ceases to exist. This happens if one performed more sins than mitzvos including sins like eating chometz on Pesach or eating or working on Yom Kippur. A person gets kares to his body and soul for committing idolatry. The Rambam (perek 8, hilchos teshuva) is of the same opinion of what kares to the soul is and explains that the reward of the righteous is that they merit a pleasant life in the World to Come, and he lives in goodness. Retribution to the wicked is that they won’t live eternally, rather they will be cut off and die. Anyone who doesn’t merit life will die and won’t live forever, rather he is cut off in his wickedness and lost like an animal. This is the kares that the Torah says “cut off you shall be cut off.” This double language teaches us that he is cut off from this world and he also doesn’t deserve to live in the World to Come…
Rabbeinu Bachye has 3 questions on this view:
1. This punishment is exacted to a wicked person who didn’t repent from his bad ways, but Gehinom was also created for wicked people. Just as the completely righteous gets eternal delight, so too the completely evil person should have his soul eternally punished; but if he ceases to exist, like this view holds, then what happens to the punishment?
2. If you say Gehinom was created for middle-of-the-road people, not completely righteous or completely wicked, then that would mean the completely wicked would fare better; which doesn’t make any sense at all?!
3. Why weren’t those who received kares to the soul listed in the Mishna of perek Chelek in Gemara Sanhedrin as those that don’t have any share in the World to Come? Rabbeinu Bachye concludes the questions on these sages by pointing out that even the worst in Gehinom, who never move on to Heaven, don’t exist on their own merits but rather only have a share of existence out of Hashem’s righteousness. Like a pauper who has nothing to eat and must rely on others for nourishment. And even those sinners who go down and never come up, at least see some respite on Shabbos and Yom Tov; so how can those who are guilty of punishment of kares to their soul be any worse?
Rabbeinu Bachye therefore concludes and mentions that the Ramban and Onkelus agrees to this view, that it’s impossible to be that kares of the intellectual soul means that one will cease to exist. Rather, what it means when it says “that the soul will be cut off from his nation” is from the place one is carved out of he is cut off from. Cut off from his nation, meaning he will be cut off from all the other souls who are considered “his nation,” being cut off from them never to return, like a branch cut off from a tree, it’s life source. But his soul will be nurtured by the luster of Hashem’s Holy Presence, not in its destined place, since it accepted upon himself to be cut off from where he was carved out from. So too when the pasuk says “the soul will be cut off from before Me,” this is referring to the place where the Shechina rests, namely the Land of Israel, because that is where the Gate of Heaven is located, which is where all the souls go up from. This is why the righteous desire to die there… this is what it means that the soul will be cut off from its place and will not rest within the boundaries. But it will definitely park itself in some other place, since it was cut off from its designated place, and it’s certainly not like the life force of an animal, G-D forbid, which just ceases to exist. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

To understand the argument between the Rambam’s camp and Rabbeinu Bachye’s camp we must first say that the Rambam must hold that the very fact that the soul which is punished with kares does not have the chance to experience the eternal bliss of Heaven, basking in the Holy Presence of Hashem, is enough of a punishment once it ceases to exist then all the torture of Gehinom. The Rabbeinu Bachye however obviously argues and says the torture of Gehinom must be worse, and therefore it makes no sense that such wicked people, who decided not to repent from their evil ways and deserve kares to their souls, would not go through Gehinom and would simply cease to exist. But there also seems to be a basic difference in appreciation of the human soul.
The Rambam and his camp seem to be of the view that if the physical person chose to treat himself just as an animal, then Hashem will treat him just that way, in a sense measure for measure, and he will cease to exist just as the life force of an animal just ceases to exist and there isn’t any afterlife.
However Rabbeinu Bachye and his camp has more of an appreciation to gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, and the fact that man is endowed with an intellectual soul hewn from the “Image of G-D” which was waiting right under the throne of Hashem before being placed into this world. Meaning it’s such a precious entity that itis impossible that Hashem would just do away with something so valuable and cause it  to just cease to exist forever. Therefore it must be that if this soul chooses to do really bad with its body in this world then at the worst it is in a sense excommunicated in the Next World, out into a place it was not destined for, separated from everyone else and far away from Hashem’s Holy Presence. Yet it is never lost forever, just placed in its own miserable circumstance, getting some level of benefit from Hashem, in a warped, irregular, and unnatural way. Rabbeinu Bachye says that even Korach and his followers, the personification of the evil of all evils, who were lost from this world and the next, did not cease to exist, but rather live in Gehinom intact with their punishment, and in the future will merit to be resurrected with the rest of the dead.

Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to discuss something which at first glance has no relevance here but when probing the matter seems to be very apropos. He says that many wise philosophers believe that the soul was created in order to learn wisdom and Torah within the physical body of a person. They bring proof which they feel is impossible to disprove: that from the beginning of its creation, when the soul enters the body, it has no knowledge or insight and as it grows wiser and grows up its intellect grows as long as the body is growing, which proves that the soul is only prepared for the body for if the soul was wise when entering the body then it would make sense that the body would be at an advance level of maturity when born.
Rabbeinu Bachye responds to this argument that it’s known that the philosopher’s beliefs aren’t the main belief because it’s all theoretical, based on hypotheses. They don’t know or understand because they walk in darkness but the Jewish intellectuals have the words of Chaza”l, the sages of truth, who from the mouths of prophets have accepted the truth, and they know for a fact, without a doubt, that the soul comes into a body already complete and with much wisdom from inception.
What happened to all this wisdom? Why aren’t we born smart and knowing how to do everything? Rabbeinu Bachye quotes at length the gemara in Nida 30b and a similar medrish which discusses how an angel learns Torah with the baby in the womb and the baby can see from one end of the world into the next, with light lit over its head. The angel also shows him the righteous in Gan Eden and the wicked in Gehinom, explains to the baby who each of them are and warns the baby you can turn out like one of the wicked in Gehinom or the righteous in heaven, it’s up to you to make the right decisions. When it’s time to leave the womb and go out into the world, the angel immediately slaps the child (this is the imprint in the middle of the upper lip below the nose) and extinguishes the candle, the baby is forced out, and forgets all that he or she learned, and then goes out to the open air of the world. This is why a baby cries as soon as it comes out.
Rabbeinu Bachye then says that he explained all this at this juncture because the soul with its wisdom and perfection comes to the body, but the angel causes it to forget as soon as it is born, as decreed by Hashem in order for one to put in efforts and busy oneself to learn and earn reward.
Rabbeinu Bachye continues at length and concludes that with pure logic it makes sense that a person who serves Hashem wholeheartedly naturally stays connected to Hashem and basks in His Holy Prescence; all those souls are at peace. But a soul that is cut off from the natural cause and effect of creation is miraculously set apart from its natural course and therefore this punishment must be spelled out and emphasized in the Torah.

What does the argument between the Torah sages and philosophers have to do with kares? What is the exact lesson Rabbeinu Bachye is delivering? It would seem that Rabbeinu Bachye isn’t just defining and explaining to us the concept of kares but he is trying to motivate us not to fall prey to and become ensnared in the sins that deserve this punishment. His means of doing so is by showing us how precious and valuable we are from the very beginning, even before we are born, and how beloved and sacred we are even after we physically die, no matter how low we get on in this world. There is no way Hashem would ever let go of something or someone as precious as our essence, our soul. This is not just a show of Hashem’s ever bountiful love for each and every one of us, but it’s also proof to gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, and Hashem expects us to choose to find and maintain that greatness inside of us.
We have to appreciate who and what we are. Priceless, eternal, extra special beyond words, and if we internalize that then we will treat ourselves and others with the proper respect deserving and try our best to avoid sullying ourselves physically and spiritually in order to maintain the high-level royalty which our souls deserve.