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The choices we make sometimes sully our soul. Here’s how God cleans it.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

One of Judaism’s 13 principles of faith is the belief that God ultimately rewards good and punishes evil.

As Maimonides described it in his list, “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.”

However, most of our sages and philosophers teach that the promises of reward and punishment only apply to the World to Come and they do not necessarily refer to rewards and punishments in this world.

It is argued that this world is unworthy to see miraculous allotment of reward and punishment. We do mitzvot in this world simply because doing so is a meaningful and rewarding experience, not necessarily because we will be rewarded materially. That will come in the Next World.

Indeed, it is taught that the reward for doing good deeds is the opportunity to do more good deeds! Any material “rewards” we experience in this world is simply a freebie.

We believe that a person is rewarded (in the Next World) for every mitzva and good deed that one performs and is punished for every transgression and bad deed that one performs. Good and bad deeds do not cancel each other out or “settle payment,” but rather, everything is treated on its own.

As such, even if a person does good and even causes many others to do good, he is still punished for his sins.

However, we are also told that God’s desire to bestow goodness is much greater than His desire to punish.

Even though God might punish, we believe that it is ultimately for good of the individual. We may not perceive it as such. It is taught that before the Torah was given, God would judge the world collectively rather than hold each person responsible for his or her own individual deeds. There are several such examples in the Torah.

Now that the Torah has been given with its list of dos and don’ts, every person is judged on an individual level.

As an added incentive to do good deeds, we can bear in mind that the Torah promises us that our good deeds will do well for our descendants, as it says: “For those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands of generations” (Exodus 20:6).

We see from here that our good deeds help our descendants just like the good deeds of our righteous ancestors help us. This is why we often say things in our prayers such as “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel!” which is asking God to bless us in the merit of the good deeds of our ancestors.

So what is this “Next World” where we will be both punished and rewarded?

The Jewish view of the Next World is unlike the common Western world thinking of a Heaven and a Hell, the former for the good people and the latter for the bad people.

Although we certainly believe in an afterlife, we believe that we all go to the same place. In this place — let’s call it Heaven for simplicity — we will be punished for our sins and rewarded for our mitzvot.

We believe that for the first 11 or 12 months after death, everyone is punished for the sins they committed in this world. However, this is more of a “cleansing” than a punishment. A sin-stained soul cannot enjoy the Eternal life of Heaven and its goodness. The more one sinned, the harder the cleansing will be.

After this approximate year of cleansing, the soul receives its “portion” in the World to Come, commensurate with the good deeds that one performed in this world.

The Jewish custom for mourners to recite the Kaddish and lead services in the synagogue for the first year after the death of a parent is done because doing so is said to bring relief and merit to the soul of the deceased thereby making the cleansing period a little bit easier.