The physical body acts like a screen, blocking the Divine light from reaching the soul. A thoughtful individual should want to free his soul from these physical constraints.
And yet, implanted deeply within us is an overriding love of life in this material world. We want to live, and we possess a powerful instinct to survive. It is axiomatic that every natural (but uncorrupted) human desire must be consistent with universal truths. As Kohelet taught, “God made man upright” (Ecc. 7:29). An intrinsic human quality cannot conflict with a basic ethical tenet. How then does our love of life jive with the moral imperative for the soul to be unhindered in its spiritual growth?
“לֹא הַמֵּתִים יְהַלְלוּ יָ-הּ, וְלֹא כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה. וַאֲנַחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָ-הּ — מֵעַתָּה וְעַד-עוֹלָם, הַלְלוּ-יָהּ.” (תהלים קט"ו:יז-יח)
“The dead do not praise God, nor do those who go down in the silence [of the grave]. But we bless God, from now and forever!” (Psalm 115:17-18)
The psalmist contrasts the silence of the dead with the praise of the living. As the Talmud explains,
“While alive, one should always engage in Torah and mitzvot. After death, one no longer has Torah and mitzvot, and God derives no more praise from him.” (Shabbat 30a)
It is related the great Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, began to cry on his deathbed. His disciples were taken aback — surely this righteous man, famed for his unparalleled piety and Torah knowledge, was not fearful of punishment in the afterlife?
Tears flowed as the Gaon picked up the fringes of his tzitzit. “Here in this world, for a few pennies, I can fulfill a mitzvah and serve my Creator — every moment of the day!”
“Is there anything like that in the world of souls?”
Why is the soul unable to praise God after death?
Rav Kook explained that we have two distinct human desires. While different, both are suitable and proper. First, we aspire to advance, to improve and better ourselves. And secondly, we wish to be on a high, respected level.
This second goal — attaining an elevated spiritual state — is only possible after the soul has been liberated from physical constraints. Growth and change, on the other hand, are only possible while the soul is bound to the body and must contend with the challenges of life in this world. In short: death is a state of being, while life is an ongoing process.
What is praise of God? True praise is when we are able to recognize God’s perfection through the perfection of His works and creation. Only when we uncover a new aspect of Divine perfection in the world, previously unknown, do we truly praise God. Praise comes with new understanding of the universe. Such enlightenment can only exist in this world, a world of change and advancement. “The dead do not praise God.”
Spiritually, we advance through Torah study and mitzvot. These tools, however, serve no purpose in the next world. “After death, one no longer has Torah and mitzvot, and God derives no more praise from him.” The soul no longer improves (mishtabeach) after death. The special praise (shevach) derived from the soul’s elevation to new heights is only relevant to those living in this world.
Thus, our innate love of life is based on the remarkable aspiration, implanted in the soul, to seek growth and self-betterment.
The Sages taught (Menachot 29b) that God created two worlds with His holy Name. The physical world was created with the letter hey, and the next world with the letter yud. Together, the spiritual and physical realms interact. Together, they compose God’s Name.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 80)