Our reading this week begins with the words “And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel.” Dev. 31:1 According to the Rambam (Maimonides), these words indicate that Moses went from tribe to tribe, sharing his final instructions and bidding farewell to each one as he knew this was the last day of his life.
Some commentators point out the interesting fact that the Hebrew word translated here as “went” and the Hebrew word for Jewish law, halachah, come from the same root. They derive from this that as Moses “went and spoke” to all of Israel, he was in fact completing his mission as teacher of the Torah. He lived by the Torah and taught them its meanings so that by word and example, Am Yisrael would grow spiritually and walk in the ways of Hashem.
The lifestyle which observant Jews embrace trains us in how to navigate the multitude of transitions that every life brings with it. Through our Torah observance, we move smoothly from night into day, from the weekdays into Shabbat, from one month to the next, from one holiday season to the next, from being single to being married, from being a child to becoming an adult and so on. Our observant life is so structured that we learn to make each transition with grace and trust in Hashem, knowing full well that He is with us every step of the way; that His Presence envelops us in times of great joy as well as painful sorrow.
And like it did for Moses, our lifetime of Torah observance prepares us for the most critical transition of all – from life on this earth to entrance into Olam Haba, the World to Come. As the children of Israel were preparing to finally cross over into the Promised Land, Moses was preparing for that ultimate crossover from this physical world to the world of elevated spiritual reality.
While Judaism attaches great importance to the reality of this life, we are reminded in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, that “this world is the lobby of the world to come” and it is our duty and privilege to so conduct ourselves in this world as to be prepared to enter the presence of the King of the Universe. One of the fruits, therefore, of living according to the Torah is the gaining of a peaceful and fearless outlook on one’s transition to Olam Haba.
In the words of Samuel Raphael Hirsch, one of Judaism’s great theologians and writers: “There can hardly be another thought that can so inspire man firmly to resolve to life a life so vigorous, unwavering, fearless and unswervingly dutiful than the belief in tehiyat ha-metim (the resurrection of the dead.) This is the firm conviction that to God, not even the dead are lost forever, and that, even for the physical body, death is not the end but only a transition period from one life to the next.”
Indeed, the reality of the World to Come can and should be one of our greatest motivators for living righteous and holy lives on this planet. Let me hasten to add that we should do so not primarily from a motivation of personal gain, neither from an unhealthy fear that is at its essence self-serving. No, rather, if we understand that Hashem has prepared an eternal place for us where we will bask in His Divine Presence in a perfect existence, and that this is a gift that awaits us even after all of the blessings He has granted us in this life, how can we not be overcome with thanksgiving and WANT to live in a way that pleases Him because of His amazing goodness towards us?
It is this understanding that is at the heart of one of our morning prayers, recited by devout Jews around the world and throughout the generations:
“My God, the soul that You have given me is pure; You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me and You preserve it within me. And in the future, You will take it from me but You will restore it to me in the world to come. Therefore, as long as the soul is within me, I give thanks to you…”
Judaism’s story is a tale of migration, of travels, of journeys from one place to another, geographically but also spiritually. Just as Abraham was sent to a land he knew not, each person’s departure from this life is also to a land we know not but to which we go in faith, as did our Father Abraham.
In Tune with Torah this week: on this Shabbat immediately preceding Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our year, it is fitting that we should ponder the reality of the World to Come and how much we invite its impact on our daily life. If we have given little thought to it in the past, let us purpose to embrace its reality in a positive and inspiring way so that our behavior in the year to come will be positively enhanced by these meditations.