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Question: How do we know that there is an olam haba – a world to come?

L. Papirmeister

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Answer: Our good friend and scholar, Rabbi Avraham (Alfred) Cohen of Spring Valley, NY, who taught for decades at Yeshiva University High School, wrote a thesis on this subject titled, “And No Man Knows His Burial Place.” He notes that while the Talmud deduces the existence of Olam Haba based on biblical verses, the Torah never mentions it explicitly. Nonetheless, belief in it is clearly part of Judaism.

Rabbi Cohen writes as follows: “The belief in Olam Haba, the afterlife, is fundamental to Judaism. In the absence of such a belief, as any thinking individual understands, we confront a world where real justice and good do not exist, and the Creator, G-d of Judaism, cannot be acclaimed. The Torah, however, makes no explicit mention of this belief, leading modern scholars and no small number of ‘liberal’ rabbis to suggest that this belief does not constitute part of the Torah’s – and the Tanach’s – theology. Such rabbis are left ministering to their flock, burdened with the awful, theologically debilitating moral dilemmas noted above, while the scholars are left to explain historically how all the inspired religious geniuses of the Bible could avoid this belief, given their firm espousal of Divine justice and their anguished recognition of evil in the world.

“Our Rabbis have suggested that there are various allusions to Olam Haba in the Torah. I would like to suggest that the clearest allusion to belief in Olam Haba in the Torah is found in a context where its very negation appears to be implicit. I am referring to the final verses of the Torah, where Moshe Rabbenu goes up to Mount Nebo, is shown the whole Land of Israel, but is told that he will not enter it. There, in the land of Moab, near Beth-Peor, Moshe dies and is buried by G-d. The Torah states: ‘No man knows his burial place to this day. And Moshe was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were not dimmed, nor his vigor abated.’ Furthermore, the Torah states: ‘There never arose another prophet in Israel like Moshe, whom G-d had singled out face to face, as evidenced by the signs and wonders that G-d sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land, and by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of Israel.’ He was the human vessel through whom G-d’s great acts were displayed for the benefit, and in the presence, of all of Israel.

“If we are to believe the scholars and ‘liberal’ rabbis cited above, we face an insurmountable moral dilemma in the final verses of the Torah. To understand it, and to understand the final verses of the Torah, we must cast our eyes back to a previous account in Moshe’s life. In Bamidbar (ch. 20), we read that Moshe was denied entrance to the Land of Israel because of his actions at the waters of Meriva, where, we are told, to extract water for the people of Israel, he hit the rock rather than speak to it, as Hashem had commanded him. Yet, was this Moshe’s wrongdoing? Almost all the commentators amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim cite multiple views on the enigmatic nature of Moshe’s misdemeanor. The heart of the issue is pointed out by Sforno, who wonders what Moshe’s wrongdoing could be that would justify the Torah’s expression of rebuke for not listening to G-d’s word, nor sanctifying Him before the people of Israel, for which reason(s) he was denied entry to the Land of Israel.

“The severity of Moshe’s punishment is further highlighted when we examine the parasha in which Moshe implores Hashem to rescind His decree and to allow him to enter the Land of Israel (Devarim ch. 3): I implored G-d at that time, saying, ‘Hashem Elokim, You have begun to show to Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty arm; is there some [other] god in heaven or on the earth who can perform actions and mighty deeds like You? Let me go over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and Lebanon.’ There is a difference of opinion between Rashi and Ramban as to which one of the two names of G-d refers to His attributes of mercy and justice, although both agree that both names of Hashem denote these two attributes, and that Moshe is pleading to Hashem to rescind His decree. For Rashi, the names are to be understood as addressing Hashem who is ‘merciful in His act of judgment,’ and Rashi’s full commentary on Moshe’s entreaty to G-d follows this view.

“We recall well that Hashem had answered Moshe’s entreaties on behalf of the people of Israel after He had declared His intention to destroy the nation. Why would Hashem not grant mercy to Moshe himself, the greatest of men, the only man to whom G-d had spoken ‘face to face,’ G-d’s greatest servant, who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and more than any other man yearned to bring them into the Promised Land? Had G-d answered Moshe’s entreaty, the Torah could have ended with Moshe’s bringing the people into the Land of Israel, at which point Joshua would have taken over the reins of the nation (cf. a somewhat similar view in Hatam Sofer).

“What is the great moral dilemma in all of this? It goes beyond the question of the specific nature of Moshe’s wrongdoing. If, for argument’s sake, there is no Olam Haba, Moshe perishes with the dor HaMidbar, the generation of the desert. If reaching the Promised Land is the ultimate goal of the people of Israel, collectively and individually, to the exclusion of Olam Haba, the Torah ends with the tragically unthinkable account of Israel’s greatest leader perishing at the threshold of that destination. Such a reading of the Torah is devastating to any understanding of Judaism, and must be rejected in a simple reading of the text. What we have to infer, instead, is that Moshe’s death has implications that go beyond Moshe himself, which explains why this event, the death of Moshe, was specifically chosen to conclude the sefer Torah. Moshe is representative of every man, each seeking to achieve an ultimate purpose and meaning, to reach the Promised Land in his lifetime. In this life the goal cannot and will not be fully reached. For that, man will have to travel further, beyond this worldly abode, beyond human perception, where ‘no man knows his burial place.’ It was not merely the burial place of Moshe’s remains that was never to be known; more deeply, and truthfully, it was his movement to the ultimate Promised Land that is beyond human grasp and perception.

“In this light, the Torah ends with an existential message to all men, through the account of Moshe’s death. Moshe dies ‘by the word of G-d’ and he is buried by Hashem; the place of his burial, or, his final destination, is known to no man. Even at his death, however, ‘his eyes are not dimmed and his vigor is unabated.’ What could be the point of this observation at the time of Moshe’s death (cf. Rashi), when his physical vigor will surely perish, other than as an allusion by the Torah that Moshe Rabbenu lives on? And throughout the Torah’s account of his death, in a mortal life where the Promised Land could not be attained, we are comforted by the knowledge that our journey [too] does not end here.”

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.