How a person is judged on Rosh Ha-shana relates to his life in this world and the next. We have discussed the implications for this world in the previous sections and will yet discuss them further, but at present we will explain how the judgment of Rosh Ha-shana relates to the next world. First, we must explain that life in the next world has two stages. The first stage begins with a person’s death, when his soul ascends to the world of souls, where there is Gan Eden (heaven) for the righteous and Gehinom (hell) for the wicked. The next stage is after the world reaches its perfection with the resurrection of the dead. At that time, souls will reunite with bodies, and together they will experience an infinite ascent (Ramban, Sha’ar Ha-gemul; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 1:3; Shelah, Toldot Adam, Beit David).
The next world, including both its stages, is also called the “World of Truth,” because, in contrast to this world, where falsehood dominates and external appearances obscure internal essence, in the next world the true stature of a person and the true worth of his deeds become clear.
Since the next world is incomparably more important than this world, as “this world is like a corridor leading to the next world” (Avot 4:16), the judgment which occurs on Rosh Ha-shana primarily relates to the next world. This judgment can be divided into two parts. The first takes into account all the deeds of the past year. For a person’s good deeds, reward awaits him in the next world; for his evil deeds, punishment awaits him. But the judgment passed on Rosh Ha-shana is not final. If he repents over the years, he can save himself from Gehinom and increase his reward in the next world. If, God forbid, he regrets the good deeds he has done and wishes them undone, he will go to Gehinom and lose the reward that had been reserved for him in the next world.
The second aspect of judgment that relates to the next world concerns opportunities to draw close to God in the upcoming year. One who has been judged to life on Rosh Ha-shana will have opportunities during the year that will help him continue to ascend in Torah and mitzvot, through which he will merit life in the next world. When he studies Torah, he will attain greater enlightenment and understanding; when he is engages in mitzvot and good deeds, he will attain greater happiness and blessing, a foretaste of the next world. If, God forbid, his judgment is for death, then during the next year he will face trials and difficulties likely to distance him from God and lose him his place in the next world. Even when he studies Torah, it will be hard for him to absorb the divine light within it; even when he engages in mitzvot, he will not properly feel the sanctity and joy they bring. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement (Avot 4:2): “A mitzva brings another mitzva and a sin brings another sin, for the reward for a mitzva is a mitzva, and the punishment for a sin is a sin” (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12).
In general, reward is called “life” and punishment, “death.” Life means closeness and connection with God, the Source of life. This closeness allows a person to experience all the goodness that God brings to this world and the next. God is the Source of all the goodness of life; all the pleasures and delights of this world flow from His shefa. But they are only a pale reflection of the ultimate pleasure, namely closeness to God. The Sages state, “One hour of spiritual bliss in the next world is better than all of life in this world” (Avot 4:17). This is because in the next world, one can enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina and take pleasure in God; life there is intensified immeasurably. In contrast, the divine light which reaches us in this world is filtered and constricted. Nevertheless, by drawing closer to God through Torah study and mitzva observance, a person can experience the equivalent of the next world in this world, taking pleasure in his closeness to God.
While reward is referred to as “life,” punishment is referred to as “death,” meaning distance from the Source of life. The distance leads to the suffering and death of the body in this world, and the suffering of the soul in the next.
Three books are opened on Rosh Ha-shana: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those in between. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, the entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and those in between are in limbo from Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are inscribed for life; if not, they are inscribed for death.
What do the Sages mean by “life” and “death”? According to Tosafot, they are speaking of life in the next world. This is also the position of R. Yosef Gikatilla (Sha’arei Ora, Gate 8). However, Ramban, Ran, Rashba, and others maintain that the Sages are referring to life in this world. It would seem that these positions are not truly in conflict, as reward in this world primarily affects life in the next world, since this world is but a corridor leading to the next (Rama Mi-Fano, Asara Ma’amarot, Ḥikur Ha-din 2:21; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 2:2; Vilna Gaon, Bi’ur Ha-Gra, OḤ 582:24; R. Ḥayim of Volozhin in his exposition at the end of Nefesh Ha-ḥayim). Being inscribed for life may also include experiencing a bit of the illumination of the next world while in this world. This is a fulfillment of the blessing, “May you see your world in your lifetime” (Berakhot 17a). See Orot Ha-kodesh 3:122.