By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
ince this past Pesach, when we celebrated our freedom from slavery, we have counted the days until Matan Torah, the “giving of the Torah,” on Shavuot. Counting aloud each day, day by day and week by week, instilled in me a sense of going through a transition, a passage of seven weeks, leading to an ultimate destination.
That transitions and destinations are part of life is obvious. What is less obvious, but more fascinating, is that one person’s destination is often another per-son’s transition, and vice versa. How well do I remember my first days of employment after my years of graduate school. I experienced those years of toil as a necessary transition to the beginning of my career as a psychologist. My first day at work was the beginning of my destination.
With this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), we begin a new Chumash, the fourth volume of the Pentateuch. Each of the five volumes of the Chumash is unique. This fourth volume is unique in that it begins as a description of a transition, a passage, from the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai through a desert wilderness but towards the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. But it soon becomes apparent that this desert wilderness will become a destination and, for many, a tragically final destination.
This book, which begins as a parade, a joyous and relatively brief journey to the Promised Land, is soon transformed into a book portraying an era of strife, rebel-lion, war, betrayal, and disillusionment, enduring for nearly forty years!
My private thoughts of transitions and destinations are painfully relevant this year, 5780/2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past several months, our lives, indeed the lives of the entire human race, have changed drastically.
The question that plagues us, and I deliberately use the word “plagues,” is this: are we in a transition that will last for but a relatively brief time, after which we will come to a destination, a return to “normal”? Or have we reached some new destination, a “new normal,” that will persist well into the future and that will radically alter every aspect of our existence?
Transition or destination?
Was it Yogi Berra who said that it is hard to make predictions, especially about the future? Truth be told, it is difficult to think of a moment in history at which there was greater uncertainty than at this moment.
In a certain sense, the distinction between transitions and destinations is an existential one. That is, the question can be asked, “Is our life in this world our final destination, or is it a transition, a prelude, into another world, another mode of existence?”
The answer to this question was proclaimed long ago by the rabbis of the Mishnah: “Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:21) Our very lives, according to Rabbi Jacob, are but transitions into another destination, the World to Come. A very sobering teaching, indeed!
But our rabbis inform us of something even more shocking. Even the World to Come is not a final destination. Even for the righteous, that celestial world is but a passage to a loftier destination.
“Said Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi in the name of Rav: Talmidei Chachamim [pious wise men] have no rest, neither in this world nor in the World to Come, as it is written, ‘They will go from strength to strength, and appear before the Almighty in Zion (Psalms 84:80)” (Berakhot 64a).
One is tempted to assume that it is only the righteous who progress ever upward and know no final destination. But surely the wicked, whose destination is Gehenna, have reached “the end of the line.” The rabbis are quick to assure us, however, that even Gehenna is not the end of the line: “The sentence of the wicked to Gehenna is for but 12 months” (Eduyot 2:10). Even Gehenna itself is but a transition, hopefully to a higher and nobler destination.
In conclusion, permit me to turn my attention to a happier topic. With this week’s Person in the Parasha column, I celebrate the first publication of this weekly series of columns, for Parashat Bamidbar, 2009, exactly 11 years ago. At that time, I had just concluded my tenure as executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which, until then, had been my “destination.”
I began a new transition in my life which has thankfully continued until now. I already have some tentative notions as to the theme of “transitions and destinations” as it is to be found in this fascinating new book of the Chumash that I hope to share with you, with the help of the Almighty, in the weeks to come.