You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayelech.
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys
(And He Went)
DEUTERONOMY 31:1 – 31:30
Moses begins to prepare for his death by empowering Joshua as his successor and establishing regular readings of the Torah. He again warns the people about the perils of forgetting God once they enter the Land and instructs them in methods of remembrance.
OUR HOLY TEXT BEGINS with the words, “And Moses went…”1 Where did he go? Instead of gathering the people to him, Moses goes out to them. His message is too important, his mission most vital; he dare not risk missing his mark.
Remember that Moses is the part of us that is awake, that is connected to the power of prophesy, that is linked inextricably to its Divine source. “I was asleep but my heart stayed awake,”2 cries the Song of Songs. Moses is that awakened heart that beats at the center, but whose song is usually well-muffled by layers and layers of Self.
Moses goes out on a mission of empowerment. He travels to the edges of our awareness in order to awaken our potential – to call us into our power. The Talmud describes this aspect of the inner landscape by saying, “The face of Moses was as the face of the sun; the face of Joshua as the face of the moon.”3 Even through the dark night we can receive and reflect some measure of wisdom, joy and true grace. In the presence of all the people (every facet of awareness), Moses empowers Joshua to activate his full strength and courage on behalf of the whole. And though the light of the moon may wane, it will wax again bright and round. Even though we will forget the essential truth of our Oneness and Glory, we will remember again, just as surely as the moon’s light forever returns… returning us to our fullness, to our remembrance.
THE BLESSING of Vayelekh is the pathway of Teshuvah, the ever-present possibility of “return,” no matter how far we’ve strayed, no matter how extreme our forgetfulness. And the blessing of Vayelekh is that we, like Joshua, have been empowered to boldly reflect the Divine light, to step into leadership, to open ourselves wide to receive our inheritance – in spite of our inconsistencies, volatilities, uncertainties, and tendencies towards absentmindedness.
Vayelekh commands us to set up regular, public readings of the Torah, so that everyone can hear, learn, and come into a state of awe before the Great Mystery.4 We are each invited to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and receive the blessing of Revelation. When we encounter Torah at regular intervals, we are turning our moon-faces towards the light to receive and reflect and remember our inheritance. It is said that for Joshua the sun stood still.5 We, like Joshua, are blessed with that timeless moment of Revelation as we stand before the sacred text and receive its light.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
VAYELEKH DESCRIBES, in vivid detail, the perils of forgetfulness. In our forgetfulness, we will feel abandoned; God’s face will be hidden from us and in our confusion we will turn to “other gods,” thus breaking the connection with Source and cutting off the flow of covenantal love. Vayelekh warns us that when we enter the Land flowing with milk and honey and have eaten our fill, we will “get fat,”6 which means we will become complacent and inevitably forget the miracle before us. We will be devoured by the Land that we had set out to conquer.
God instructs Moses to compose a song, and teach it to us, to “put it in our mouths.”7 The Song is planted within us as a witness, an antidote to our inevitable forgetfulness. For even when we forget everything else, we will remember the Song.
The advertising industry understands this maneuver so very well. We are easily manipulated by the power of Song. A clever rhyme married to a catchy tune can be planted through repetition in the soil of our vulnerable minds to grow a sudden and inexplicable thirst for a certain soft drink or a craving for fast food.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE OF VAYELEKH is to consciously use the power of Song, to deliberately plant the remembrance that will become vitally important when the forces of forgetfulness pull you into that familiar labyrinth of complacency, distraction, self-righteousness or confusion.
YOU MUST FIRST FULLY ACKNOWLEDGE the nature of forgetfulness – its power to seduce you, its familiar deceptions, and its insidious influence that can send you to addictive behavior or unconscious destructive reactivity time and time again. Only when you have understood the poison, can you begin to know and apply the antidote.
1 Deuteronomy 31:1
2 Song of Songs 5:2
3 Bava Batra 75a
4 Deuteronomy 31:9-11
5 Talmud Taanit 20a
6 Deuteronomy 31:20
7 Deuteronomy 31:19
8 Deuteronomy 31:21,28
9 Proverbs 8:19-21
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
THIS POEM (VA-YELEKH) 2008
That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 31:22)
This poem aims to cover everything
that could ever happen to you. It includes
instructions for celebrating festivals,
the manumission of slaves, building altars,
the punishment of disobedient children;
descriptions of how the cosmos came to be
and how our holiest sites should recapitulate
the orderly progression of God’s attributes.
This poem seems to have all the answers
but it doesn’t even have all the questions.
This poem doesn’t tell you how to feel
when you’re sitting in shul and wishing
the sun would break through the clouds.
This poem contradicts itself often.
This poem has a lot to say about television,
the internet, the stories we tell ourselves
about who we really are in the world
though it says all of these things obliquely.
Those who understand, understand: that’s
the way this poem shakes out. This poem
is written in intricate code, each letter
secretly a number and each number symbolic
of something incredibly important, though
we’ve forgotten at least half of the meanings
we once upon a time knew by heart. This poem
weighs heavy on our shoulders, it ties
our insides in mystical knots. Sometimes
this poem tastes like wildflower honey
and other times like homemade ink
dissolved in water that hasn’t been stirred.
This poem is old-fashioned. This poem
is being written right this second,
each breath a new letter on the unrolling page.
From Rabbi Zvi Miller
Towards the end of his life, Moshe Rabenu informed Klal Yisrael of his impending death (Devarim 31:2): Moshe said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today…” Meaning: “Today my days and years are filled on this day; on this day I was born and I this day I shall die, i.e., he died on his birthday.”
In these words, Moshe revealed the secret of completeness. The Midrash (Bereishis Raba 58:1) explains this idea from the verse (Tehillim 37:18): HaShem knows the days of those who are complete… Says the Midrash: “Just as they are complete, so too, their years are complete; HaShem completes their years from the day of their birth to full years, so that] the day of their death falls on the day of their birth.”
The worthiness of tzadikim is expressed in the term that HaShem calls them, i.e., they are called ‘complete’. The Midrash continues: “The essential principle of days is completion of a life cycle. As Rabbi Yochanon stated: ‘The days of the righteous are like a complete circle.”
The significance of this concept is that just as a circle has no angles, rather it is completley round – so too – the deeds and affairs of those who are completely righteous are whole and complete. This wholeness is reflected in the days and years of their lives – which span a complete cycle – from day of their birth to the day of their death.
A tzaddik lives every moment to the fullest, and gives his whole heart to serve HaShem – in Torah, Mitzvoth, and deeds of loving-kindness. Hence, there are no ‘side moments’ in his life. He treasures every second of life that HaShem bestows upon him. Therefore, he recognizes the opportunity in every moment – and – lives it to its highest potential.
Therefore, just as he fulfills his days, so too, HaShem blesses him with days and years that are complete.
[Based on Da’as Torah of Rav Yerucham HaLevi]
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
And he Went
September 21, 2011
Then Mose spoke to Joshua, his successor:
He told him a couple of things but what I remember most
is the phrase chazak v’ematz
Be strong and courageous
I loved it when Mose talked about courage
he was always one of the few who did.
Mose said not to be afraid
God would accompany us
God would not have brought us this far
to let us go on alone.
That was good too.
Then Mose did something really important
he sat down and wrote the Torah.
He wrote the entire document so we would have something
to tell the future.
He wrote it down for us
the whole thing.
When Mose was done writing, God began to speak to him.
Your days are drawing near to die,
God said to Mose,
Go get Joshua and stand in the Tent of Meeting
So I can give Joshua final instructions.
That’s what they did,
Mose and Joshua stood in the tent of meeting
and God appeared in a pillar of cloud
so we didn’t catch everything.
What we heard was difficult
it was about the future
and what we would forget and how someone would
have to remind us now and again –
what we are all about.
So Mose wrote out the Torah
then he made up a song
that Mose taught us that day
it was a song, or a poem
and some of it was heard and is known
And some of it
There is a known song
and a secret song
a known poem and a secret poem.
One is flesh and form
the other bone and spirit.
D E half-flat F G
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure, a maqam,
Arabic cognate of maqom = place.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim – Vayelekh
25 Elul 5771 – Living Torah
September 24, 2011 / 25 Elul 5771
By: Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
In Moses’s second to last speech to the children of Israel, before he dies and they enter the land, he hands them the “keys to the city” as it were. The centerpiece of this speech, coming after the rewards and punishments of the covenant, and right before the exhortation to choose good and therefore life, is the criterion for membership in the community.
“For this commandment that I have commanded you today is not beyond your powers nor is it distant from you. It is not in the heavens so that you might say: ‘Who will go up to Heaven and take it for us, and teach it to us so that we will do it.’ Neither is it beyond the Ocean so that you might say: ‘Who will cross to the other side of the ocean for us, and take it, and teach it to us so that we will do it.’ For the thing is very close to you, it is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.” (Deut. 30:11-14)
As Moses leaves the stage, he takes with him the necessity for his role as mediator. It is no longer necessary for somebody to go up to heaven (not once, but twice) to bring the Torah down. It is no longer necessary for there to be one person who mediates the word of God for the people. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
There is one oft-quoted Talmudic tradition that understands this exhortation as saying that once the Torah was given at Sinai, it is no longer in the realm of Heaven, and its interpretation is dependent solely on human understanding. God is no longer a voice in the debate. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
There is, however, another line of thinking which valorizes the prophetic moment. The Midrash (Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh 9) states that Israel merited prophecy because they refused to hear the voice of God directly at Sinai, and begged Moses to be the intermediary (Exodus 20:19). When Moses retells the story of the theophany at Sinai (Deut. 6:19-30) he adds God’s response to the people’s request not to hear God’s voice. “They have done good in what they have said,” God says. The Midrash takes this to be an approval of the mediated structure of that moment.
Moses’ statement in this week’s portion, however, doesn’t fit neatly into either camp of the mediator/no mediator debate. This is the “key to the city.” The point of Moses’ statement is that you cannot rely on the fact that there might be somebody else to get the Torah and teach it to you, or for you. You must get it, study it and teach it. There is no longer an excuse. The fear that Israel had at Sinai of hearing the voice of God, cannot now be avoided-for the voice of God is what happens when Torah is studied. God is in the space between the student and her text, between teacher and student, between student and study partner.
When Moses finishes speaking, he immediately writes “the words of this Torah on a scroll, in their entirety.” He then entrusts them to the Levites to carry with the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah is now text, and inert unless studied. This is the obligation of freedom, and the criteria for membership in the community: being involved in the ongoing dialogue of Torah study. For those who take up the challenge-it is theirs; for those who don’t-it remains beyond the ocean and above the Heavens.
The Sfat Emet, a Hassidic work from the last century, comments that Moses broke the tablets of the law only upon seeing the golden calf. When Moses saw that Israel was capable of trying to materially incarnate a vision of God, he knew that they were not ready for the proper relationship with the commandments. For, the Sfat Emet says, if Moses had brought the tablets to the people at that moment, they would have worshipped them as an idol. When Torah is static it is an idol: inaccessible, beyond the heavens, and for all intents and purposes, mute. When Torah is studied, and therefore dynamic, it is close at hand and alive. It is the word of God.
From American Jewish World Service
Last year, as part of an alternative Rosh Hashanah service I attended, we discussed one of the central themes of the holiday—kingship. It was interesting to note how many of us ‘moderns’ struggle with the concept of an external authority who is judging us and then determining our destiny. Many of the participants spoke about the contradiction between the Jewish liturgy, which depicts an external God as the source of authority, and the more contemporary idea that our internal conscience should guide our actions. I, too, shared this discomfort, so I found it interesting that Parashat Vayelech, read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, offers a more balanced perspective on the various loci of power in the Torah.
The parashah begins with the familiar model of biblical hierarchy: At the end of their 40-year journey in the desert, the Israelites are accustomed to relying on external authority. This is most obvious in their relationship with God, who feeds them manna from heaven and accompanies them through pillars of cloud and fire. In addition to providing sustenance and protection, God also demands obedience, explicitly using reward and punishment to ensure the Israelites observe the commandments. The Israelites also rely on external human leadership, looking to Moses—and later Joshua—as authorities on every aspect of theology, law and daily life. In this parashah, Moses emphasizes that God and Joshua will march ahead of the people, leading them into Canaan.1
But when the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, they will experience a shift in their relationship to authority. They will transition from dependence on an overt God and strong leaders to worship of a more concealed God and rule of law dictated by weaker, short-term judges. This evolving relationship with external authority will require a cognitive shift away from simple dependence towards greater empowerment.
This need for a shift in consciousness is reflected in this parashah, when God instructs Moses to teach the people a song—shirah—that they must learn by heart (literally, ‘put it in their mouths’2). This shirah speaks about the Israelites’ past, their future demise and eventual redemption. While the content of the song characterizes God as a powerful authority figure, the instruction that the Israelites internalize the song indicates that the locus of authority was ultimately to reside in the people. The song gives them an internal voice that can guide them through life’s complex choices and struggles. The song signifies a shift from utter dependence on external authority to an empowered knowing from within. The people need less authoritative leadership because they are developing an inner conscience that both upholds and engages their covenant with God.
This tension between depending on external leadership or finding an inner sense of authority within ourselves and our communities is a challenge we face in civic life today. Do we place our destiny in the hands of our leaders, those with official titles of power, or do we assume responsibility ourselves for maintaining our nations’ ethical course?
In South Africa, where I live, a tragic event has made many people think about this dialectic between political leadership and the internal voice of the people. Several weeks ago a group of miners demonstrated for an increase in wages. During the protest, the miners charged at the police. Unprepared and lacking rubber bullets, the police fired live ammunition on the miners, killing almost 40 of them3—a tragedy that is reminiscent of the Apartheid era when the police notoriously opened live ammunition on demonstrators.
After this event, the press bemoaned the absence of strong leadership in our country. How could the police have let this happen? How could those who run the mines have let this happen? Why didn’t the government take a strong stand to condemn the killings? As everyone apportioned the blame at a different leader, a pervasive atmosphere of despair filled the country. A few wise journalists commented that the only way forward was for individuals and communities to assume responsibility; for civil society to remember the core values of our country—the shirah, so to speak—and to chart the way, because leadership had let us down.4
At the same time, the eyes of the world watch America keenly in the build-up to the U.S. elections. With all the emphasis on who will come into power, it is important to remember that responsibility for the future of the country does not belong to the President alone; it also resides with the people.
The ideal power structure is a balance: On the one hand, we need to honor the fact that ‘external’ leadership does matter—elected leadership has the capacity to bring about significant change. Yet, we must not forget the force and influence of our inner shirah—the power of the people to lead their own way on a just path.
The Torah represents this balance. As described in Parashat Vayelech, the Torah is kept in an ark but brought out every seven years and read to the people. The Torah is a physical embodiment of God’s word, but as a text, it requires human interpretation and engagement. Neither solely a voice of external authority, nor purely an inner, subjective voice, the Torah symbolizes the balance between internal and external authority. As we approach the end of this cycle of Torah reading and reflect on the ways in which we bring our own voices to this Divine text, let us apply this model to our understanding of authority and responsibility, by both taking our elected leadership seriously and engaging deeply and actively in the destiny of our countries and our planet with the inner knowing of our shirah.
1 Deuteronomy 31:3.
2 Deuteronomy 31:19.
3 Michelle Faul, “South Africa Mine Shooting: 150 Miners Claim Beaten In Custody,” Huffington Post, 27 August 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/south-africa-mine-shooting-miners-beaten_n_1833604.html
4 Paul Berkowitz, “Tinkering with the great machine: how do we get the society we want?” Daily Maverick, 21 August 2012. http://dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2012-08-21-tinkering-with-the-great-machine-how-do-we-get-the-society-we-want
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Highest or Deepest? (5773/2013)
Vayelech – Moshe went. But where did he go?
To the mountaintop, says Torah: Climb the Avarim Mountain…Die on the mountain that you are climbing, and be gathered up to your people… (Deut. 32:48-50).
And to the gorge, says Torah: It was there in the land of Moab that God’s servant Moshe died at God’s word. Buried him in the gorge…. No one knows the place that he was buried, even to this day. (Deut. 34: 5-6).
Was it mountain or gorge? What should we make of this inconsistency – knowing that Torah has no contradictions, only paradoxes that point us to deeper reflection?
Perhaps there is no inconsistency, as a natural geographic feature can incorporate mountains and gorges. So says Ibn Ezra: Mount Nebo is a star-shaped system of mountains that includes gorges and other highland geographic features.
Perhaps the inconsistency reminds us that the Israelite path from slavery to self-government is built on miracles. Impossible things happened every step of the way. So says Rashi: Moshe’s grave is one of the miraculous, one-of-a-kind, exception-to-the-natural-order things created on the evening of the sixth day, just before the first Shabbat.
Perhaps the inconsistency reminds us to read Torah a little less literally. So say some Hassidic teachers: Moshe went to both the highest place and to the deepest place. He went into the minds and hearts of his people.
We read about Moshe’s simultaneous ascent and descent just before Rosh Hashanah. I’ll take it as a suggestion for the inner journey. I’ll risk visiting some deep, dark places of inner hurt, anger and confusion…for the sake of ascending to resolution and insight.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Vayelech: Torah as Song
From Rabbi Richard Address
Va’Yelech: When Is It Time to Let Go?
This week we reach one of the most poignent passages of text. Deuteronomy 31, 1 and 2. Moses stands beofre the people. Aware that his death may be near, that the transfer of power and leadership is at hand, he makes a powerful and personal declaration. “I am now 120 years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, God has told me that ‘you shall not cross over the Jordon” (Deuteronomy 31.2). “I am no longer active” is how the Reform (Plaut) and Conservative (Etz Chaim) modern commentaries translate the Hebrew of “lo oochal od latzeit olavoh”. The more tradiitonal Chumash (Art Scroll) seems closer to the text as it translate this as “I can no longer go out or come in”. That same commentary mentions the fact that this does not refer to his age, as Moses–as we see later on–remains vibrant. Quoting Rashi and Maimonides, the commentary mentions that this refers to the fact that Moses was unable to lead the people in their conquest because Joshua had been chosen and that, since God had promised protection, it made no difference.
This passage has particular relevance to our generation. Many of us, no matter what our occupations, may find ourselves in a position that we also do not have the strength, or opportunity to “carry on”. Sometimes this is by our choice. Sometimes, it is foisted upon us. We feel “young at heart” and not ready to be reduced to being marginalized. It is a real life transition. I have seen this with colleagues who find, after leaving full time work, that they have no place to go. Used to 24/7 activity, there is a void because there is no daily routine and, as one colleague explained, “the phone does not ring”. Once again, we are faced with major life transition. We do not wish to “let go” but let go we must.
But this letting go can be a powerful opportunity to grow and evolve. There can be a sense of liberation in this letting go. I may not be able to “be active” in my previous way, however, I can be very active in new pursuits and new avenues for intellectual, spiritual and emotional growth. These transitions can be empowering for our generation if we come to see them as real opportunities for our oen personal evolution. To regress and lament that things are not what they used to be, or similar expressions of regret, can only trigger negative feelings and a turning inward. Perhaps one of the messages that the Torah may be sending us, in our age, is that though we may not be able to be “active” in ways we once were, there is no reason why we cannot use the gift of time to continue to explore the miracles of life and how we can seize these moments to sanctify the life we have. Just a thought!
Rabbi Richard F Address
From the Maqam Project< /strong>
From Rabbi David Kasher
The Hidden Face
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Live From Your Depths
Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute,” Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒.
חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute.” The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z”l translates those words, that’s when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts.
We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we’ve been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
Keep hope, keep hope — keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.
There’s a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of “be strong and resolute,” and this verse from the psalm we’ve been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope.
We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.
The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:
To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.
For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward — and, importantly, to act toward — a world that is better than the one we know now.
Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר — “and there was evening and there was morning.” Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile — which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark — and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”
The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It’s a turn, like teshuvah.
The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you’ve been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.
This is the d’var Torah I offered at my shul this morning.
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