After she finished reading Dara Horn’s novel “The World to Come,” my wife said to me, “The last chapter is amazing.” I am more of a non-fiction reader, but on her advice I read the last chapter. It’s filled with Dara Horn’s style of weaving Jewish titles, terms and quotes in her narrative, and is a joy to read. Especially if you “get” all the references.
In the chapter, two souls who already lived spend some time with a “not-yet,” a soul who is soon to be born, on a journey to the Tree of Life that is guarded by the sword described in Bereishit 3:24.
The male character wants the not-yet to eat from the tree so it will live forever, while the female character does not. She asks, “You actually, genuinely, want him to be born and never die?”
When the male character (the not-yet’s deceased grandfather) proceeds to scream at her saying, “WHY NOT? Why can’t he have what we didn’t have? Why should his children have to watch him die?” her response is, “Because that’s what makes it matter.”
It’s a chilling scene, one imagines taking place in a heavy rainstorm, at a tottering bridge, before the world is about to end. The scene is very powerful and dramatic.
The Torah lists the concern that a person might eat from the Tree of Life and live forever as one of the reasons for the expulsion from the garden (3:22-23), but it does not say why living forever would be a problem. In fact, Radak points out that original command of 2:16-17 included instructions that allowed people to partake of the Tree of Life: “You may eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge.”
Once they partook of the Tree of Knowledge, mortality was introduced — they were condemned to die one day. On account of this, they were expelled from the garden, lest they eat from the Tree of Life and extend their lives beyond their now-allotted years.
Radak feels that G-d could not command them “Do not eat the Tree of Life” because it had already been permitted to them. Furthermore, experience shows they did not do well with one commandment not to eat from a specific tree. Therefore they were taken out of the garden to avoid the problem altogether.
Ramban speaks in less cryptic terms when he says, “G-d wanted His decree to be fulfilled with the death of man. Were he to eat from the Tree of Life, His decree would have been thwarted. Or he might even live forever.” The problem with the Tree of Life, therefore, was that it would take away the punishment the humans were meant to get for eating of the Tree of Knowledge. (Chizkuni)
In the most spiritual of the answers I found, the Alshich looks at the practical side of living forever, and though he does not mention the cathartic stage we go through in death directly, he says “Were he to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever, he would never achieve a tikkun” or a correction for his mistake.
Rashi even describes how a person who lives forever will steer people after him, making himself into a god-like figure.
It does not seem that immortality in and of itself is a bad thing. But for Man who was punished for partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, living forever would remove the punishment. For Man who needs to achieve atonement or to receive forgiveness for an error, death brings about such atonement and forgiveness. For Man to bring a correction to the soul, such a correction could only come about when the body no longer stands as interference to the soul.
Death also brings closure to a life lived – sometimes well-lived, sometimes long, sometimes tragically short. Knowing of our own mortality, we set goals for the lives we live, and if we are lucky enough to apportion our time right and stay focused, we can spend a good portion of our lives trying to achieve our goals.
The knowledge that we have a finite amount of time makes our individual journeys on this earth matter, and makes our existence matter to those we touch in our lifetimes.
The mark of a life well-lived is being missed by those who survive us once we are gone. Were we to live forever, we would never be missed, and we would lose our relevance. We might even ask G-d to end our existence, as did many Biblical and Talmudical figures (Moshe, Eliyahu, Yonah, Choni Ha’Magel, to name a few, as well as the elders of Luz (Sotah 46b)
May we merit to always live our lives noting the gift we have been given. May we also find the resilience to make the most of our lives so that when our time on earth comes to an end, we need not look back with any regrets.
As the female character says to the not-yet born in “The World to Come,” “The test comes later.” And her male counterpart says, “Later. During every moment of every day of your life.”