The revenge that there is no revenge worse than it is that the soul will be cut off and will not merit life [in the World to Come], as it is stated (regarding one who commits idolatry), ‘cut off, that soul shall be cut off, its sin is within it’ (Numbers 15:31). This perishing is what the Prophets called by way of analogy ‘the pit of destruction,’ ‘devastation’ (avadon), ‘furnace’, ‘leech’ (alukah). The [Sages] refer to it using every term of destruction and devastation, since it is the destruction after which there is never any rising and a loss which is never regained.
The Rambam is continuing to discuss the final fate of man. Up until now he has discussed the World to Come — the ultimate reward the worthy will merit in the End of Days. The Rambam now turns to the alternative — the destruction which will be visited upon the sinful.
What is this punishment? It is really the worst possible fate imaginable — destruction of the soul. Such a person will no longer exist. He just will not be. The Torah refers to it as karais (I use this term below) — usually translated as excision, to be cut off. The soul will be cut off from its source of existence and perish.
When we think of this, this is the worst horror imaginable. This isn’t punishment, suffering the torments of Hell. It is nonexistence, the complete nullification of a soul. In our lifetimes, we are afraid of death — even though we know in our hearts that our souls and our psyches — our true selves — will still exist after. Excision, however, is true death. We will not be. I suppose after it is all over it will no longer make a difference. But to the soul, this is the most frightening fate comprehensible.
It has likewise always been a little bit curious to me how people can question if our souls are immortal — if there is life after death. I think all of us — even the questioners — know instinctively that a part of us is eternal. We are more than just a bunch of neurons storing and transmitting information. We have a soul which exists apart from our physical selves. In fact, we sense we are “real” on account of that small part of us which is immortal — that small piece of God within us which does not depend upon things physical. And conversely, the thought that that may ultimately be taken from us if we are not worthy is the most frightful fate imaginable.
The commentators on the Rambam make an important observation. Jewish literature often makes reference to a more conventional Hell — a place of fire and divine retribution in which the sinful are punished. The Rambam, however, seems to describe the punishment destined for the wicked as simply a lack of eternal life. Where is the room for the “regular” Hell in the Rambam’s scheme?
The answer is what we discussed a few classes ago (8:1 part 3). There are two stages to our judgment — a personal one each of us undergoes after he dies, and the universal judgment visited upon all mankind at the End of Days. After each of us dies, we will stand in judgment for our actions. And since “there is no righteous man in the world who will do good and never sin” (Koheles 7:20), virtually all of us will suffer some expiation in Hell — the conventional purgatory we are all familiar with. We will then enter what we described as the “World of Souls” — not the ultimate reward of the World to Come, but the blissful resting place for all souls until the Resurrection.
At the end of the physical world’s existence, after 6000 years, a separate judgment will be visited upon man — and that will be the ultimate one. The righteous will enter the World to Come — an eternal, blissful state of closeness to G-d, while the wicked will be destroyed utterly. This is what the Rambam is discussing here. He certainly agrees to the existence of the Hell which is the fate of man after his death — as he wrote clearly in 3:5. But he is now discussing the world’s final stage.
(It should also be noted that even the thoroughly wicked who will be destroyed at the End of Days will also suffer the conventional Hell for each and every one of their sins. G-d’s justice is absolute. No act, no matter how great or small, is ever forgotten.)
There is another important distinction we need to make. The Torah prescribes the punishment of excision for a vast array of sins — many of the incestuous relationships, one who desecrates the Sabbath, one who eats certain forbidden fats, one who enters the Temple in an unclean state, etc. The list is considerable. It is clearly reserved for fairly serious sins, but one would not think that everyone on the list is so wicked that his soul deserves total destruction.
Further, the Talmud defines excision in more than one place. In Mo’ed Kattan (28a), it defines it as dying between the ages of 50 and 60 — i.e., young. In Yevamos (55a) it defines it as being (or dying) childless. The medieval commentator Rashi follows both explanations (see commentary to Genesis 17:14). Needless to say, an early death is certainly divine punishment, but it’s hardly eternal destruction.
Based on this, the Ramban (Nachmanides, great Talmudist and philosopher of 13th century Spain — note the ‘n’ at the end of his acronym), in his commentary to the Torah (Levit. 18:29), distinguishes between three levels of karais. I will simplify his discussion by making one very basic distinction, as below.
There are basically two types of karais, of being cutting off — one is from this world, and the other is from the next. The run-of-the-mill sinner, who (knowingly and purposely) desecrates the Sabbath, is liable to excision from this world. His life will be cut short and/or his genealogical line will be cut off through the death of his children (see Ibn Ezra to Genesis 17:14). Once his punishment is administered, however, he will achieve atonement and enter the World to Come — no doubt at a humbler station — but his soul will live on. Regarding such sins the Torah generally writes, “the man (‘ish’) will be cut off.” The physical man will be cut off, but his soul will remain.
One, however, who rebels against G-d in the most serious fashion — he rejects G-d for idolatry, or he curses G-d (see the text of Numbers 15:30-31), will have not only his body cut off, but his soul as well. Regarding such sins, the Torah generally writes, “The soul will be cut off.” Such a sinner’s very soul will be excised from life and will perish eternally.
I doubt many of my readers fall in this category, but I think it’s appropriate to add that all such punishments, even for the most heinous of sins, can be averted through repentance. Several chapters ago (ch. 3), the Rambam devoted a lot of space to discussing categories of sinners so wicked as to receive no share in the hereafter — people who deny G-d, deny the divinity of the Torah, ignore the plight of their fellow Jews, etc. The list was quite extensive and covered virtually all the most godless type of people — those who clearly want nothing of G-d and spirituality (and who are resultantly granted their wish).
But then the Rambam added the following conclusion (3:14):
“When is it the case that all of these [people] have no share in the World to Come? When they die without repentance (teshuva). But if [such a person] repents from his wickedness and dies as a repenter, he is among the ones who receive [a share in] the World to Come. For you have nothing which stands in the way of teshuva. Even if one denied G-d all his days and at the end repents, he has a portion, as it is stated, ‘Peace (shalom)! peace! to the far one and the near one, says G-d, and I will heal him’ (Isaiah 57:19).”
Judaism may at times seem demanding. We have a G-d who insists we serve Him and punishes us when we do not. But in the final analysis, G-d is in it for one thing alone — to reward mankind, to give us the opportunity to gain a relationship with Him and reap the ultimate reward. And He gives us every opportunity possible to return to Him, till our very last moments on earth. For G-d virtually never gives up on us. We should not either.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org