Reader: Can we provide any benefit to a deceased person's soul? Once the person has left this world, is their soul affected in any way from our actions? How does it work?
Mesora: Moses told the people:
“I give cause to testify you today heaven and Earth. Life and death I place before you, the blessing and the curse. And choose life, that you will live, you and your seed.”
At the end of his life, Moses instructed the Jews to make a terminal decision. If the possibility exists that a soul may be affected positively post mortem, Moses would not have taught that man may select life, or death. “Selecting death”, means selecting a terminal, negative outcome. How can there be a negative outcome, if someone yet alive can change your soul after you die?
But Moses did tell the Jews that their Earthly decisions have real consequences. This was the teaching of the two goats of Yom Kippur, as well as the two mountaintops of Grizzim and Eval. In all three cases, Moses taught that there are two paths one may lead: 1) Devastation, as seen in the dismembered scapegoat, and Mt. Eval’s barren nature, and 2) True Life, displayed in the second Yom Kippur goat belonging to G-d, and in Mt. Grizzim’s lush topography. So important is the sense of ultimate culpability that Moses spoke many times about it. Saadia Gaon too writes extensively on his opinion that punishment is never ending. (See his work, “Emunos v’Daos”, “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”) Our opinion must be one that is well researched, and well thought out, not parroted from others seeking irresponsible comfort.
Man’s decisions on Earth have permanent consequences. Moses states this openly. Let us not be concerned with popular notions we frequently hear, such as “giving a Neshama an Aliya”, “elevating one’s soul.” So odd is this practice, as it is made while people drink a scotch and eat cake, assuming a ceremonial “kiddush” makes amends for the deceased’s evil. Although popular - even with contemporary rabbis - our barometer for truth is the Torah of Moses, not currently practiced/preached Judaism. Once the practice of meticulous adherence to Torah is lost, Judaism loses its authenticity and all value, and is Judaism by name alone.
Suggesting that the living can benefit the dead teaches the heretical notion that man is not responsible for his decisions. It teaches that man may sin grievously, die, and his righteous, living son will right his father’s wrongs. As a friend often mentions, “Can Hitler’s descendant make Hitler a “tzaddik”, a righteous man? If this is true, what of the reverse? Can a dead, righteous man be made a sinner by his live son’s poor actions?” We see the absurdity in such a position.
What may propel belief in this notion is a true love one has for the deceased. While these emotions are tender, we do not compromise truth to placate one’s feelings. Another source for this belief is one’s own fear of ultimate culpability for his actions. If a person feels he can alter his father’s fate after death, ipso facto this means, that his own fate may be improved after his own death. It is insurance one wishes for the self.
More centrally, I agree with the person who submitted this question: By what system, and by what justice does a living person make amends for the evil generated by someone dead? G-d says in His Torah:
"There will not be killed fathers for sons (sins, nor) are sons killed for father's (sins). Each man in his own sin will be killed."
It is clear. G-d’s system of justice is perfect. The one who is corrupt pays the price for his crimes. His corruption cannot be removed unless he repented during life. If he failed to repent, he died in a corrupt state, and he can no longer undo his evil. This concept of affecting the dead is 1) bereft of reason, and 2) is a corrupt violation of G-d’s very words.
Repentance is also completely denied with the belief that the living can atone for the dead. If this were so, the concept of Teshuvah, repentance, has no place in Judaism: “I might as well sin my whole life, because my son will make amends after I die.” Nonsense. In his Laws of Repentance, 4:1, Maimonides states that one who says he will sin and repent before death is not forgiven. How much more so, one who sins and does NOT repent before his death!
You will notice that with a few inquiries, those espousing this belief are dumbfounded: Ask them how it works that you may affect the dead. They have no answer. Why? Because it is not a true principle, and as it is with all fallacy, it cannot be supported by reason. Rationale is the litmus test for determining what is an accurate, Torah tenet.
As Moses presented two options, I ask you the same: Are we following pop-Judaism, or the greatest thinkers and their profound, rational and Torah-based concepts?
Take an example from G-d’s rule of man’s Earthly affairs: We are well aware of G-d’s promises and fulfillment of victory and defeat, for the good and for the evil. We know of many cases where G-d miraculously saved the righteous, and punished the wicked. As this is clearly G-d’s method of justice, why would one think that after death, G-d should work any differently? Death is a change in man, not in G-d! “For I am G-d, I do not change...” (Malachi, 3:6)
Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, 9:1:
“For if man does not acquire wisdom here, and good actions, he has nothing through which he merits, as it states, ‘for there is no action, and calculation, and knowledge and wisdom in the grave.”
Maimonides is clear. Once one dies, there is no change. I truly hope this motivates us to do the good, even though it is out of fear. Better one should salvage his life from fear and not from a love of G-d, than not to salvage his life at all. Certainly the higher level is to be attached to Torah, i.e., Torah wisdom, out of recognition of wisdom’s primary place in our lives. This may only be achieved through diligent study, which in time, is all one would prefer to do. To master Torah study takes time, and requires us to redirect our energies, which includes some pain. But over time, you will find nothing as rewarding, fulfilling, enjoyable, and pleasant.
Maimonides’ 11th Principle:
Principle XI. That God gives reward to he who does the commandments of the Torah and punishes those that transgress its admonishes and warnings. And the great reward is the life of the world to come and the punishment is the cutting off of the soul [in the world to come]. And we already said regarding this topic what these are. And the verse that attests to this principle is (Exodus 32) "And now if You would but forgive their sins - and if not erase me from this book that You have written." And God answered him, "He who sinned against Me, I will erase from my book." This is a proof that God knows the sinner and the fulfiller in order to give out reward to one and punishment to the other.