The Book of Radiance: Tales from the Zohar
By R’ Yaakov Feldman
Sometimes it gets the better of you and you just need to know — to know what’s on the other side of the chasm that is the Afterlife, what the dead do day after day, what they know, and just what they have that we don’t.
Needless to say, few of us have the wherewithal to even ask the questions let alone expect answers, but some do. And while they may not see quite everything — or, if they do, they may not have a chance to report it back to the rest of us — nonetheless the Zohar offers the findings of one exalted soul who did cross over to the other side, the great R’ Chiyya (Zohar 1, 4a-b). And while his experience there was a unique one that doesn’t answer all of our questions, it does offer us a broader, rare view of Heaven.
Now, a number of people have ascended to Heaven in their lifetimes. We’re taught, in fact, that “nine entered the Garden of Eden when they were still alive, and they are: Enoch the son of Jared; Eliyahu the prophet (see below); Eliezer, Abraham’s servant; King Hiram of Zor; Ebed-melech the Cushite (see Jeremiah 38:7); Yabetz the son of R’ Yehudah HaNasi; Batyah the daughter of Pharaoh; Serech the daughter of Asher; and, according to others, also R’ Yehoshua ben Levi” (Derech Eretz Zuta, Ch. 1). But they never came back.
In fact, we’re told outright that the prophet Eliyahu ascended to Heaven by means of a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) and that he wrote a letter about his experiences there which he had presented to King Jehoram (see 2 Chronicles 21). But we aren’t given any of the details of his sojourn there.
There are others who’d seen Heaven in their lifetimes whose experiences were depicted to a degree. Yitzchak, our forefather, ascended to Heaven when he was bound to the altar and about to be slaughtered by his father, Avraham. We’re told that the angels accompanied him while he was in Heaven to the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber there where his father had studied, and that he stayed there for three days to study. He was then granted visions of the primordial Holy Temple that existed before the creation of the world, of his own descent from Adam as well as insights into Adam’s future descendents up to the End of Days (see Breishit Rabbah 56, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 22:19, and Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer 31).
Moshe ascended to Heaven also, we’re told, after having he’d reached the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He arrived at the River Rigyon with its terrible flames then, where angels of destruction set out to burn him to a crisp but were stopped by a Divine fiat. Moshe continued to advance further and further upward where other angels caught sight of him and complained about the mere mortal who had the nerve to be in their midst. But G-d interceded on His behalf again, and Moshe caught sight of Him in His Throne of Glory. Suddenly all the Hosts of Heaven shook in G-d’s presence because it was time for him to finally receive the Torah. G-d opened the seven firmaments and showed Moshe the Heavenly Sanctuary; then He opened the gates of the seven firmaments and transmitted His Torah to him, and Moshe then returned to earth (see Pesikta Rabbati 204, Shabbat 88b-89a, and Ma’ayan HaChochma).
And the Talmud records that R’ Yoseph, the son of R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi, had what we’d now term a “near-death experience” at a certain point, before quickly coming back to life. His father asked him what He’d seen there, on the other side, and R’ Yoseph said he saw “a topsy-turvy world, where those on top (while here, in this world) were on the bottom (while there, in Heaven) and vice versa” (Pesachim 50a). This speaks volumes about what matters and what doesn’t, what we’re to concentrate upon here in life, and what we’d do well to realize we shouldn’t be engaged in, but now isn’t the time to delve into all that.
But only the Zohar presents us with a full report on what one individual saw when he ascended Heavenward, on why he was catapulted back to earth, and on some of what he saw while he was there. Here’s what it says.
At a certain time R’ Chiyya, who played a major role throughout the Zohar and was R’ Shimon Bar Yochai’s youngest disciple, prostrated himself on the earth, kissed the dust and cried out, “Dust, dust how stiff-necked you are!” For he’d asked to draw close to his Master, R’ Shimon, who was already dead and buried, and he’d been denied that. So there seemed to be nothing else to do but appeal to the soil in which R’ Shimon lay buried.
R’ Chiyya went on reprimanding the soil for having dared to enclose R’ Shimon’s bones when he “suddenly fell into a reverie and said, ‘Dust, dust, don’t be so proud! … R’ Shimon will not be consumed by you!’” We’re then told that he “fasted for forty days in order to actually cross over into the world of the dead and meet with R’ Shimon”. But a voice appeared from the other side and declared that R’ Chiyya wasn’t fit to see him. “So he wept and fasted for another forty days”, the Zohar reports.
Know that sometimes the angels themselves can be moved, as they’re able to read the heart that implores them to do this or that, and they’re often fascinated by the depths and width of such hearts, since they know nothing of that themselves, so they accede now and again.
And so the Zohar goes on to say that the angels “showed him R’ Shimon and R’ Eleazar, his son, in a vision”. What were these two tzaddikim doing in Heaven? “They were discussing the interpretation of a certain term that R’ Yossi had used”, and we’re told that many thousands of souls were listening along.
There were a lot of other things going on there, as R’ Chiyya, reports: R’ Shimon and R’ Eleazar ascended up to the heavenly Yeshiva. R’ Shimon suddenly called out the following: “Let R’ Chiyya enter and see the degree to which the Holy One will restore the countenances of the tzaddikim in the world to come!” And suddenly the doors to Heaven were opened to him.
“How fortunate is one who comes here without shame” (which is to say, without sin), a voice called, “and how fortunate is he who stands upright in this world like a mighty pillar that bears all!”
So R’ Chiyya did indeed enter, and he discovered that all the tzaddikim there stood up for him, which embarrassed him deeply; so he went to sit at the feet of R’ Shimon, when a voice arose in the distance.
“Lower your eyes,” it commanded, “do not raise up your head, and do not look!” So R’ Chiyya followed orders when he suddenly “saw a light shining from afar” which mystified him. That same voice then came back, we’re told, and addressed R’ Chiyya (and us here on earth too, to be sure).
“Wake up!” it stormed. “For who among you has transformed darkness into light” as the mighty ones in the Garden Eden have done? “Who, among you has eagerly awaited the shining of the Light that will come about when the King calls upon the Gazelle (i.e., the Shechina)?” Anyone “who doesn’t eagerly await that each and every day in that world (i.e., while he’s yet alive) hasn’t a place here” in The Garden of Eden.
The Zohar then returns to what R’ Chiyya was seeing for himself there. “He saw many of his friends … elevated to the Heavenly Yeshiva” when he was then approached by the Archangel Metatron.
Among other things, the Archangel attested to the fact that “The King does indeed attend to the Gazelle (i.e., the Shechina) every day and recalls how She lies in the dust of the earth” while the exile still functions. “He kicks 390 heavens” in His frustration, if you will, “which then quake and tremble with fear because of Him. And He cries” because of our continued Exile.
His “tears, which are as hot as fire, cascade down into the Great Sea. And it’s in fact by the power of these tears that the one who governs the sea (i.e., the angelic Rahav), is sustained and kept alive. And he takes it upon himself to sanctify G-d’s name by swallowing all the waters of … creation. He then gathers them all to himself so that on the day when the nations of the world will assemble against the Holy Nation the waters would dry up as they cross over on dry land”.
Suddenly R’ Chiyya heard a voice call out: “Move aside, make room. The Moshiach is coming to the Yeshiva of R’ Shimon!” and he arrived there indeed, “crowned with heavenly diadems”. And then to the great chagrin of R’ Chiyya the Moshiach called out, “Who allowed a human being wearing the cloaks of that world in here?”
R’ Shimon revealed to the Moshiach that not just any human being was there, but that it was R’ Chiyya , whom he referred to as “the Shining Light of the Torah”. The Moshiach responded: very well “Let him and his sons be gathered up!” That is, let them die in fact, “and join your Academy!”
But R’ Shimon said to the Moshiach, “Give him some time!” to remain alive; he’ll get here after a while indeed. And so we’re told that “time was granted him” in fact. And R’ Chiyya came back.
© 2012 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).