You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayelech.
The Courage to Hope
VAYEILEKH | ROSH HASHANAH SHABBAT SHUVAH YOM KIPPUR
BY : RABBI AYELET COHEN
Head of the Year:
It is not too late. It is early
and about to grow. Now
is the time to do what you
know you must and have feared
Shabbat Shuvah represents the place between hope and fear; between transformation and unrealized aspirations. We may have made big promises on Rosh Hashanah, resolving to make significant changes in our lives, entering the year with a sense of excitement and optimism. But as Yom Kippur draws closer, we become more attuned to our own shortcomings. So much is beyond our control. Changing old patterns is arduous, the path uncertain. Confronting our own limitations, we can feel afraid and alone. The spiritual work of this moment lies in discerning the difference between acknowledging our limitations and succumbing to fear.
In Parashat Vayeilekh, the Israelites stand on the cusp of entering into the Promised Land. Like us, they are full of possibility and trepidation. Moses is running out of time. Without him, the Israelites will have to confront the challenges ahead without their constant guide and intermediary to God. We might imagine them, along with Joshua, who is poised to become their leader, feeling untethered and afraid. Moses offers them comfort and reassurance: they are not alone. Joshua and the Israelites are entering a changed world but, Moses assures them,
ה׳ אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ ה֣וּא ׀ עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֗יךָ
God will cross over before you.
Ha’amek Davar, the 19th-century commentary of Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), points out the difference between the phrasing of this verse and a similar verse as the Israelites first left Egypt (Exod. 13:21): וה׳ הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ״ “And God went lifneihem (ahead of them) by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them along the way.” The language in Exodus, according to the Netziv, communicates that the Israelites followed behind passively as God split the Red Sea, whereas “God will cross over before you” means that God’s action is entwined with the Israelites’ action. Once they cross into the Promised Land, the Israelites will actively determine their own destiny, as partners with the Divine.
If we are to create real change in our lives, we cannot wait passively for the change to happen to us. Despite loss and disappointment, we must move forward, repairing what is broken in our relationships and our world. In their first steps out of enslavement, the Israelites followed behind an enormous pillar of cloud. Now, as we begin this new year, we must chart our own journey—just as the Israelites did when they prepared to enter the land. We must seek the Divine inside ourselves.
Like the Israelites, as we navigate the challenges of an uncertain future, entering the New Year in yet a new stage of the pandemic, a time of geopolitical and planetary turmoil, an era of significant change for the Jewish people as a whole and, closer to home, for JTS as an institution, we don’t always feel the presence of God. The consciousness of our own limitations and of the very real obstacles in our way can undermine our confidence that we can transform, that we can enter the Land. Fear and self-doubt encroach, making it difficult to remember that we are not alone. Like the Israelites, who when overwhelmed by doubt and fear wished for a moment that they could return to Egypt, there are always those who will wring their hands, saying that our best days are behind us, that we cannot repair what we have broken and move forward.
Moses seems to have understood this. Facing his own death, and the awareness that he would not reach the land himself, he summons his most powerful rhetoric, leaving Joshua and the Israelites—and us—with a message that continues to accompany us and guide us. He reassures and exhorts:
חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ אַל־תִּֽירְא֥וּ וְאַל־תַּעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם כִּ֣י ׀ ה׳ אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ ה֚וּא הַהֹלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹ֥א יַרְפְּךָ֖ וְלֹ֥א יַעַזְבֶֽךָּ׃
Be strong and courageous, do not fear or dread them; for it is indeed your God who marches with you: [God] will not fail you or forsake you.
Strength and courage take many forms. According to the 12th-century Midrash Lekah Tov, חזקו ואמצו refers to being strong in Torah and mitzvot, and taking courage in ma’asim tovim (responsible and ethical deeds) and derekh eretz (treating others withdignity and respect).
Moses emphatically repeats these key words to Joshua in the next verse, reassuring him and the Israelites.
וַיִּקְרָ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִיהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלָ֜יו לְעֵינֵ֣י כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and courageous.”
We repeat these words, in Psalm 27, throughout the Days of Awe, a kind of mantra that can steel us and comfort us as we encounter the unavoidable fears and doubts that accompany all new beginnings.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳ חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳׃
Turn to God; be strong and take courage, and turn to God.
The repetition of “turn to God,” which bookends this verse, draws the attention of the commentaries and the midrash. They admit that we repeat these words at the beginning and end of this verse because sometimes we pray and our prayers are unanswered. The experience of fearing our prayers are unheard, that our path to change and renewal is blocked, is clearly familiar to both classical and contemporary commentators. They tell us to try again. To look deeper. Not to give up hope.
As we stand in this liminal moment, in these in-between days that are filled with awe, in its dual meaning of fear and wonder, each of us can consider the ways in which we can fortify ourselves with hope as we move toward our promised lands.
The lesson of Shabbat Shuvah is to have the courage to keep returning. This season calls us to search for God, not ahead of us, like a pillar of cloud providing obvious and easy markers on our path, but inside of us. We search for all that is entwined within us: for God, for the strength we can draw from our ancestors, and for the courage to change. Only then can we move forward, knowing that change is possible and that we are not alone.
Moses’s Journey, and Ours
VAYEILEKH | SHABBAT SHUVAH
BY SHULY RUBIN SCHWARTZ PhD
Whenever I read the opening verse of this week’s parashah, I recall the other parashah that opens with the same verb: לך־לך (“Go forth”). Told to go, Abram heeded God’s call, uprooting his life and journeying—both physically and emotionally—first to Haran and then to the land of Israel. And now, as we near the end of the Torah reading cycle, Parashat Vayeilekh begins by attributing that very same action of journeying to Moses, as he nears the end of his life. What can we learn from the parallel acts of journeying that these two great leaders of our people undertook?
Abraham set out on a journey about which he knew nothing, spurred to do so in response to God’s call. Moses’s action of וילך (Deut. 31:1) tells a different story. Commenting on the first verse of our parashah, Seforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, c.1470–1550, Italy) understands וילך משה (“Moses went”) to mean that Moses התעורר לזה (“awakened to it”). This awakening connotes self-drive. While Abraham responded to God’s call with a leap of faith, Moses was motivated from within. Abraham’s journey began without a clear sense of what was to unfold. With Moses, we encounter a leader inspired by a clarity of purpose and mission honed through decades of relationship with both God and his people. He accomplished so much—as his orations that fill the book of Deuteronomy have detailed.
Abraham’s “לך־לך” marks the beginning of his journey. Ironically, Moses’s act of “וילך” marked some of the final footsteps of his life. It also has no complement—where did Moses go? The next phrase does not tell us where he went; it tells us what he said:
וילך משה וידבר את־הדברים האלה אל־כל־ישׂראל—“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
Why then does the parashah begin with the verb of movement? At this moment, as B’nei Yisrael prepares for their long-awaited entrance into the Promised Land, Moses’s journey is marked by a lack of physical movement. He has known for some time that he will not enter the land, the consequence of striking rather than speaking to the rock to extract water. He now must prepare himself to divulge this crucial information to his people. He surely anticipates that they will be frightened, angry, and dejected and that this could turn quickly to self-doubt, as they question whether they are up to this next challenge without him. Moses must undergo an emotional journey, moving past lingering feelings of sadness or bitterness to effect a smooth transition of power and give the people the strength and confidence to continue their journey. Thus, the next verb after “went” is “spoke,” as Moses shares all of this with the people. He confesses that at the age of 120, he can no longer be active and shares the news that he will not cross the Jordan River.
As we know, some of the most consequential journeys we take in life are invisible to the naked eye. This is, after all, our task during the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim: to do the internal work to manage sadness, disappointment, frustration, and anger, and to reach out to those in our lives with a generous spirit and an eye toward the future.
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865, Italy) makes explicit the connection between the parashah and the Days of Awe, by reminding us that the same verb, לך (go), is also used in reference to the shofar that accompanied the Revelation at Sinai:
ויהי קול השופר הולך וחזק—“The blare of the horn grew louder and louder” (Exod. 19:19).
Several commentators note how this image of increasing, even swelling, sound is unusual, since generally the sound of an instrument grows fainter over time as human breath grows thinner.
This extraordinary image of the shofar blast growing in impact is mirrored by the force of Moses’s message. Rather than dwelling on his own disappointment and brooding over his impending death, Moses addresses the people’s anxiety head on. He publicly appoints his successor, Joshua, reassuring the people that he had been chosen by God. Moses then offers a rousing charge to both the people (Deut. 31:6) and Joshua (Deut. 31:7) to be strong and resolute. Hoping to bolster their spirits and fortify them, he uses the second verb חזק (“be strong”), that describes the shofar in Exodus and adds another, אמץ (“and resolute”). His words instill in Joshua and the people of Israel the courage and stamina to continue the journey without him. The verb לך makes an additional appearance in this narrative, as Moses provides reassurance to his people. Spiritual, emotional journeys can be scary, grueling, vulnerable, but while they can feel lonely, they are not; God will be with the people of Israel, God will go with the people:
יהוה הוא ההלך לפניך הוא יהיה עמך לא ירפך ולא יעזבך לא תירא ולא תחת —“And God, Godself, will go before you. God will be with you; God will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed! (Deut. 31:8)
When we hear the shofar during these Days of Awe, we hope that it will awaken us, just as Moses awakened, according to Seforno, to do precisely the kind of journeying that Moses models—to consider our own paths, how we have fallen short, and how we might still do better for those we love and those in our charge.
In this way Moses’s—and Abraham’s—legacies continue to endure through the strength of each generation of Jewish journeyers. The shofar blast is the call to Abraham to set us on our journey; it’s also the reminder from Moses that we have the strength and knowledge within us to continue to progress in our life’s journey. Our task is not only to listen to the shofar, but to become the shofar—growing stronger in our conviction, and more resolute in our work of building and rebuilding a better world. When we do that, God will go with us.
From the Hebrew College
Words of Love and Truth
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Parashat VaYelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)
As the Torah winds up its narrative towards the death of Moshe, it offers a few final examples of his leadership. These include his teaching of the song of Ha’azinu in next week’s parasha (Devarim 32:1-43), and his blessings to the tribes in the final parasha.
Yet this week’s reading introduces the song with a very dark moment. In Devarim 31:16, God says to Moshe: After you die “this People will rise, and stray after the foreign Gods of the people in the land that they enter—they will leave me and betray the covenant I have made with them.” In response, God will desert the people and hide God’s face from them leading to terrible suffering (ibid, verse 17). The song of Ha’azinu depicts both the process of Israel’s betrayal and the suffering that follows with great pathos. It is, however, interesting to note, that neither the text of the song of Ha’azinu, nor God, when presenting it to Moshe, have anything to say about a possible reconciliation between the people and God. This contrasts with the detailed rebuke of Devarim 28, whose stated purpose is to dissuade the people from betraying the covenant (verses 15 and 58), or the rebuke of Vayikra 26, which culminates with the people acknowledging their guilt and God re-affirming the covenant (verses 40-45), or even the beautiful description of reconciliation in Devarim 30:1-11.
In this week’s parasha, Israel’s betrayal and the following suffering are presented as inevitable. There is also no description of the suffering leading to reconciliation between God and the people. The end of the song describes God taking revenge on the nations who destroyed Israel, but that is mostly because they do not acknowledge that the power they have comes from God, and not because a relationship with Israel has been reestablished.
What then is the point of the song?
This is explained in Verse 21 of Chapter 31: “It shall be, when (Israel) is overcome by great evil and suffering, this song will confront them as a witness, for their descendants shall never forget it.” The point of the song is therefore to negate the possibility of any future misunderstanding of the situation. Israel’s suffering was foreseen and is completely the result of their own sins. The text does not propose that this understanding will lead the people to change their ways and find a way back. God will take revenge on God’s enemies (Verse 41) and wants God’s power and role to be acknowledged in the process.
I am not proposing that these paragraphs express an absolute biblical theology. Indeed, as I have pointed out, in other places in the book, even just 2 chapters away, a different theology is presented. It is, however, in the context of the narrative, a moment of deep despair from the people’s capacity to change and be different. As Moshe says in verse 27: I know your rebellious nature today; it will not change after I die.
This limited role of prophecy can be seen in other biblical narratives as well. In one of his prophecies reflecting on his role as prophet, Ezekiel sets clear limits to his responsibility as a prophet. (Ezekiel, Ch. 33) Although he is still calling for the people to change their ways, he is very clear that he is a watchman whose role is to sound the alarm, to speak God’s warning to the people. (Verses 10-21) He will be held accountable only for not speaking out—he is not responsible for those who ignore his warning (Verses 1-10). What then is the point of speaking to those who treat the prophet’s words like a performance “a beautiful love song with good music”? (Verse 32)
To this Ezekiel answers: “When (the tragedy) comes, for it is coming, they will know that there was a prophet amongst them.” (Verse 33)
As mentioned above, when Moshe presents the song to people he is caught up, as it were, in the Divine despair. Yet when he finishes teaching the song to the people he has a different message, a message of hope. Listen carefully to this story, Moshe says, your lives depend on it. By internalizing this story and teaching it to your children, you can avoid this outcome and lengthen your years on the land God is giving you. (Devarim 32:44-47)
How are we to understand the difference between the way Moshe speaks before and after teaching the song? For this, we go back again to Ezekiel, for while Ezekiel has a particular understanding of the limits of his own responsibility, he also knows of other forms of leadership, which he holds to different standards. In the chapter following his reflection on the role of the prophet, Ezekiel rebukes in the harshest of terms those “Shepherds of Israel” who did not “strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bandage the broken, return the stray, and seek for the lost.” (Ezekiel 34:4) It is worth noticing the difference between the two metaphors of leadership that Ezekiel employs. The prophet is a watchman, whose responsibility is to his role not to the wellbeing of the people. As long as he has pointed out the danger, spoken the truth, he has done what is required of him. If the people do not act wisely in response to his warning, he cannot be held responsible for that. In the words of his prophecy: “You (the prophet) have saved your own soul.” (Ezekiel 33:10)
Although this may seem like a heartless depiction of the prophetic voice, it has some resonance with the biblical narrative in which Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and most every other prophet sent to the people of Israel, failed at bringing about the social change that would have averted the tragedy they saw coming. While they spoke with great courage and endured great dangers and left behind words that we have found inspiring for many generations, one after another, they mostly failed their own generations. Is it possible that the shadow side of speaking God’s word or speaking Truth, is that upper-case Truth is so compelling to the speaker that they may forget that words must be modulated so that they can be heard in specific circumstances by specific people? Is that how we are to understand Ezekiel’s sense of being accountable to the word, not to people’s response to it?
Ezekiel’s model of the shepherd has a very different valence. The shepherd is a caretaker, and the “failure” of the sheep is the failure of the shepherd as articulated so strongly by Ezekiel. If a sheep wanders off, the shepherd must run after it, if one cannot keep up with the herd the shepherd must find a way to strengthen it. If the herd is decimated, Ezekiel will hold the shepherds of Israel responsible.
Moshe, In Rabbinic legend, is chosen to lead the people of Israel precisely because he is a compassionate, caring and responsible shepherd who will not let even a single lamb get lost. (Shemot Rabbah 2:2) Still, it is easy to imagine one who has struggled so much with both personal and leadership disappointments, hearing God’s declaration that the people will ultimately fail, and going into his darkest places. Yet by the time he finishes teaching the song, when the story ends with no other benefit than “you should know that God foretold your failure and it was totally your fault,” he cannot end there. Because Moshe, the servant of God, loves the people, and cannot succeed when they fail. (Devarim 34:5) He reclaims his role as shepherd having fallen for a short time into the limitations of Ezekiel’s prophetic voice.
And thus Moshe teaches us Teshuvah (repentance). Ezekiel’s distinction—you are either a watchman or a shepherd, is too simple. We must ask, how do we move between different voices? There is a particular challenge in our generation as the internet has given the theoretical possibility of an endless platform to any individual who has access and can type. It is easy to feel—my voice must be heard! I must put these truths out into the public square of one kind or the other social media! It can even feel like a responsibility to voice that particular truth.
And there may be moments when there actually is such a responsibility. But, I dare say, they are less than some of us sometimes imagine. . . . I look to Moshe who heard Truth from God’s own mouth, but as he was speaking realized—This may be true, but it is not useful . . . .
At this time, when reading or listening to the news makes me feel that we are marching briskly from one failure to the next, I feel deeply that we need fewer prophets and many many more shepherds. . . . So whenever I speak out, I try to remember to ask myself: Do I love the people I am speaking to? Do I feel responsible for them? Am I speaking in such a way that my words can be heard? Is what I am saying actually useful for those I am speaking to?
May we all be blessed this year to hear words spoken with love and to speak words that can be heard.
From Reform Judaism.org
Hiding from Ourselves
Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI AUDREY R. KOROTKIN
The Chasidic tradition brings us the following story:
“One day Rabbi Ber was walking with some of his Chasidim when he saw a little girl standing behind a wall and crying. ‘Why are you crying, little girl?’ he asked. ‘I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends,’ said the little girl, ‘and they didn’t come to look for me.’ Rabbi Ber sighed and said to his Chasidim: ‘In that little girl’s reply I heard the lament of the Shechinah: I will surely hide my face. I hid, as it were, and no one came to look for Me.’ “1
In this week’s very brief Parashat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30), sandwiched between the flowery discourse of Nitzavim and the farewell poem of Haazinu, Moses prepares to hand over leadership to Joshua. One would think a message of comfort and assurance would be in order. Yet, after Moses urges Joshua and the people to “be strong and resolute” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7), God informs him that they will fall into idolatry anyway, and threatens them with the ultimate Divine punishment: “Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:18). Here, the text repeats a form of the word “hidden” (hasteir astir), giving the idea special emphasis that has inspired commentary throughout the ages.
The Chasidic tale puts God’s warning in an everyday scenario; the game of hide-and-seek only works if the seekers actively look for the hider. But let’s keep in mind the other tacit rule of the game: The hider shouldn’t hide so well that he or she cannot be found.
And so the Gerer tradition also brings us this message from its early 19th-century founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter (The Chiddushei HaRim):
“If one knows and feels that God is hiding His face, that is not so terrible, for then one longs for the Shechinah and the longing will eventually smash all barriers. Indeed, there is no greater repentance than that. The problem is where God’s ‘hiding’ is concealed, and people don’t even realize it. Then there is no seeking of God. That is the meaning of ‘I will surely [haster histir] hide My face’—I will hide the fact that I am hiding from you, so that you won’t even realize that God is lacking in your lives.”2
The Gerer Rebbe is playing on the double use of the word to hide, which biblically adds the sense of surely and deepens the warning. He reads it as a concealment within a concealment—a hiding so deep that we are not even aware of God’s Presence—or lack thereof.
That is, in fact, our dilemma on this Shabbat Shuvah.
We have left Rosh HaShanah services with at least a feeling that we have engaged ourselves in the work of t’shuvah and approach Yom Kippur with the hope, if not the expectation, of full restoration with God. Yet somber music and penitential prayer—emptying our bellies and beating our breasts—are just the first step in that process. Our Days of Awe are the warm-up for the “regular season,” so to speak, which takes place all year round.
Our Shabbat Shuvah reading reinforces the necessity of this ongoing process. If our behavior has made us unaware of the Divine Presence for the past eleven months, God seems disinclined to make the first move. Rashi offers this explanation of verse 17, “I will . . . hide My countenance. As if I did not see their troubles.” Abraham ibn Ezra comments on verse 18, “I will surely hide My face. If they call me I will not answer.” 3 But why is God so obstinate? Maybe because it’s we who both took to hiding first and must make the first move to seek.
“The metaphor here is a man who does not look and does not know what he is doing,” adds ibn Ezra to his commentary. The Days of Awe are meant to be, literally, an eye-opening experience. We have to look. We have to look inside ourselves for the fractures and failings that have kept us hidden from God, but also hidden from ourselves. Among the introductory meditations in the Yom Kippur volume of Mishkan HaNefesh, a selection from Rabbi Jan Uhrbach reads, in part:
“We’re trying to remove our protective armor—ego, self-deception, rationalization, external and internal ‘makeup,’ posturing—anything that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are. We’re trying to experience both our vulnerability, and the true source of our strength. And perhaps most importantly, we’re trying to get past our self-judgment and locate a place of gentleness and tenderness.”4
Removing the armor is frightening and painful; after all, we put it on for a reason—to avoid getting hurt. Peeling it off it is like pulling off a scab from a fight or an injury, and baring the tender skin underneath. But that skin is, indeed, both our vulnerability and the true source of our strength. It is new, it is fresh. It has become neither hardened by old experiences, nor insensitive to new ones. It is truly a rebirth—one that can only begin with us.
The Gerer Rebbe taught that there is no greater repentance than that of one who has the courage to bare himself or herself in this way. Yes, it exposes us, with all our flaws and weaknesses. But it also opens us to God’s redemptive, nurturing Presence. It is a cosmic restoration beautifully described in poetry by Judah Halevi:
“I have sought to come near You,
I have called to You with all my heart;
And when I went out towards You,
I found You coming towards me.”5
1. Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg, comp., Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein, trans., Torah Gems Volume III, Bamidbar / Devarim (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1998), p. 316
2. Ibid., p. 316
3. Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy, The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015), p. 211
4. MIshkan HaNefesh, volume II (New York: CCAR Press, 2015), p. 5
5. “Lord, Where Shall I Find You” by Judah Halevi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, T. Carmi, ed. and trans., (New York: NY, T. Carmi, 1982), p. 338
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
How to Renew a Nation
Nitzavim – Vayelech 5780
The Talmud gives an ingenious reading to the line, “Moses commanded us a Torah, as a heritage of the congregation of Israel.” Noting that there are 613 commands, and that the numerical value of the word Torah is 611, it says that in fact Moses gave us 611 commands, while the other two – “I am the Lord your God,” and, “You shall have no other gods beside Me,” (the first 2 of the 10 commandments) – the Israelites received not from Moses but directly from God Himself.
There is a different distinction the Sages might have made. Moses gave us 611 commands, and at the very end, in Vayelech, he gave us two meta-commands, commands about the commands. They are Hakhel, the command to assemble the people once every seven years for a public reading of (key parts of) the Torah, and “Now write for yourselves this song” (Deut. 31:19), interpreted by tradition as the command to write, or take part in writing, our own Sefer Torah.
These two commands are set apart from all the others. They were given after all the recapitulation of the Torah in the book of Devarim, the blessings and curses and the covenant renewal ceremony. They are embedded in the narrative in which Moses hands on leadership to his successor Joshua. The connection is that both the laws and the narrative are about continuity. The laws are intended to ensure that the Torah will never grow old, will be written afresh in every generation, will never be forgotten by the people and will never cease to be its active constitution as a nation. The nation will never abandon its founding principles, its history and identity, its guardianship of the past and its responsibility to the future.
Note the beautiful complementarity of the two commands. Hakhel, the national assembly, is directed at the people as a totality. Writing a Sefer Torah is directed at individuals. This is the essence of covenantal politics. We have individual responsibility and we have collective responsibility. In Hillel’s words, “If I am not for myself, who will be, but if I am only for myself, what am I?” In Judaism, the state is not all, as it is in authoritarian regimes. Nor is the individual all, as it is in the radically individualist liberal democracies of today. A covenantal society is made by each accepting responsibility for all, by individuals committing themselves to the common good. Hence the Sefer Torah – our written constitution as a nation – must be renewed in the life of the individual (command 613) and of the nation (command 612).
This is how the Torah describes the mitzvah of Hakhel:
“At the end of every seven years, in the year for cancelling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the strangers in your towns—so they can listen and learn to revere the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know, shall hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut 31:10-13).
Note the inclusivity of the event. It would be anachronistic to say that the Torah was egalitarian in the contemporary sense. After all, in 1776, the framers of the American Declaration of Independence could say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” while slavery still existed, and no woman had a vote. Yet the Torah regarded it as essential that women, children and strangers should be included in the ceremony of citizenship in the republic of faith.
Who performed the reading? The Torah does not specify, but tradition ascribed the role to the King. That was extremely important. To be sure, the Torah separates religion and politics. The King was not High Priest, and the High Priest was not King. This was revolutionary. In almost every other ancient society, the head of state was the head of the religion; this was not accidental but essential to the pagan vision of religion as power. But the King was bound by the Torah. He was commanded to have a special Torah scroll written for him; he was to keep it with him when he sat on the throne and read it “all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:18-20). Here too, by reading the Torah to the assembled people every seven years, he was showing that the nation as a political entity existed under the sacred canopy of the Divine word. We are a people, the King was implicitly saying, formed by covenant. If we keep it, we will flourish; if not, we will fail.
This is how Maimonides describes the actual ceremony:
Trumpets were blown throughout Jerusalem to assemble the people; and a high platform, made of wood, was brought and set up in the centre of the Court of Women. The King went up and sat there so that his reading might be heard … The chazzan of the synagogue would take a Sefer Torah and hand it to the head of the synagogue, and the head of the synagogue would hand it to the deputy high priest, and the deputy high priest to the High Priest, and the High Priest to the King, to honour him by the service of many persons … The King would read the sections we have mentioned until he would come to the end. Then he would roll up the Sefer Torah and recite a blessing after the reading, the way it is recited in the synagogue … Proselytes who did not know Hebrew were required to direct their hearts and listen with utmost awe and reverence, as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great scholars who knew the entire Torah were required to listen with utmost attention … Each had to regard himself as if he had been charged with the Torah now for the first time, and as though he had heard it from the mouth of God, for the King was an ambassador proclaiming the words of God.
Apart from giving us a sense of the grandeur of the occasion, Maimonides is making a radical suggestion: that Hakhel is a re-enactment of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai – “as on the day the Torah was given,” “as though he had heard it from the mouth of God” – and thus a covenant renewal ceremony. How did he arrive at such an idea? Almost certainly it was because of Moses’ description of the Giving of the Torah in Va’etchanan:
The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, “Assemble [hakhel] the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children.” (Deut. 4:10).
The italicised words are all echoed in the Hakhel command, especially the word Hakhel itself, which only appears in one other place in the Torah. Thus was Sinai recreated in the Temple in Jerusalem every seven years, and thus was the nation, men, women, children and strangers, renewed in its commitment to its founding principles.
Tanach gives us vivid descriptions of actual covenant renewal ceremonies, in the days of Joshua (Josh. 24), Josiah (2 Kings 23), Asa (2 Chron. 15) and Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8-10). These were historic moments when the nation consciously rededicated itself after a long period of religious relapse. Because of Hakhel and covenant renewal, Israel was eternally capable of becoming young again, recovering what Jeremiah called “the devotion of your youth” (Jer. 2:2).
What happened to Hakhel during the almost 2000 years in which Israel had no king, no country, no Temple and no Jerusalem? Some scholars have made the intriguing suggestion that the minhag Eretz Yisrael, the custom of Jews in and from Israel, which lasted until about the thirteenth century, of reading the Torah not once every year but every three or three-and-a-half years, was intended to create a seven year cycle, so that the second reading would end at the same time as Hakhel, namely on the Succot following a sabbatical year (a kind of septennial Simchat Torah).
I would suggest a quite different answer. The institution of the reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning, which goes back to antiquity, acquired new significance at times of exile and dispersion. There are customs that remind us of Hakhel. The Torah is read, as it was by the King on Hakhel and Ezra at his assembly, standing on a bimah, a raised wooden platform. The Torah reader never stands alone: there are usually three people on the bimah, the segan, the reader and the person called to the Torah, representing respectively God, Moses, and the Israelites. According to most halachists, the reading of the Torah is chovat tzibbur, an obligation of the community, as opposed to the study of Torah which is chovat yachid, an obligation of the individual. So, I believe, keriat ha-Torah should be translated not as “the Reading of the Torah” but as “the Proclaiming of Torah.” It is our equivalent of Hakhel, transposed from the seventh year to the seventh day.
It is hard for individuals, let alone nations, to stay perennially young. We drift, lose our way, become distracted, lose our sense of purpose and with it our energy and drive. I believe the best way to stay young is never to forget “the devotion of our youth,” the defining experiences that made us who we are, the dreams we had long ago of how we might change the world to make it a better, fairer, more spiritually beautiful place. Hakhel was Moses’ parting gift to us, showing us how it might be done.
 Makkot 23b-24a.
 This rule was broken by some of the Hasmonean Kings, with disastrous long-term consequences.
 Mishneh Torah Haggigah 3:4-6.
 See R. Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parshot ha-Shevua, 2nd series, 2009, vol. 2, 442-461.
 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayim 141:4, and commentary of Levush ad loc.
 This is the view, regarded by most as normative, of Ramban. See e.g. Yalkut Yosef, Hilchot Keriat ha-Torah.
From My Jewish Learning
The Song of Humanity
Song can remind us of our authentic selves and our genuine power.
BY RABBI JAMES JACOBSON-MAISELS
We often read Parashat Vayelekh on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Fittingly, this Torah portion deals with sin and repentance, with becoming lost on our way and returning to our true selves.
In the portion, God foretells Israel’s future sins and their consequences, how they will turn to other gods and then be overtaken by suffering, leading God to say, “anokhi haster astir panai–I will surely hide my face (Deut. 31:16-18).” The hidden face of God, the classic theological expression of the presence of suffering and evil in the world, here seems to be a response by God to the sins of Israel, a punishment for their misdeeds.
The Hasidic master, Rebbe Ephraim of Sudylkow, understands this passage differently. Carefully re-reading the Hebrew, Rebbe Ephraim separates the phrase into two sections and reinterprets the implications of God’s actions. When anokhi haster — the I-ness of God — is hidden through our entering the slumber of self-deception and idolatry, then astir panai–[God’s] face will be hidden.
When we forget our values and our humanity, we obscure God’s holiness from the world; then God’s face, God’s true presence, is hidden from us. When we pervert what is just and right through the pursuit of that which is not the true center, we cause God’s presence to disappear, not as punishment, but as consequence.
Wealth & Complacency
The Torah explains that this turning away will occur when the people of Israel “eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods (Deut. 31:20).” It is through complacency and an absorption in wealth that Israel will lose sight of the locus of divinity and the genuine values that flow from it. And this prophesy has come true.
Our modern consumer society affords us wealth that often engenders precisely the indifference and false pursuits that our portion describes. Caught up as we are in material gain and upward mobility, we often lose sight of our true values. As we spend money on clothes, cars, coffee, and all the other goods we consume, do we take the time to see how our lifestyle conforms to our deepest values?
Do we check the source of the products we consume, where they are made and how? Do we consider the nature of our work and whether it brings healing or suffering to the world? Do we consider our investments and whether they meet our ethical standards? Do we give away the ten percent of our income that Judaism expects? Can we genuinely ask ourselves how we earn and spend money, not in the sense of self-denying guilt-ridden asceticism, but with a gentle and wise questioning of how we are living out our core ideals and whether we are hiding or revealing God’s face?
How then do we transform ourselves to reveal God’s face, God’s self, in the world? What enables us to lead a life where our actions are manifestations of our core values?
The Power of Song
Our Torah portion’s answer, remarkably, is song. God instructs “therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel, put it in their mouths so that this song will be a witness for Me before the people of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19)
Song here is meant to awaken the people of Israel, to help them reconnect to their essentially pure nature, the fundamental meaning of teshuvah (repentance), and so enable them to live out their true commitments. The true song enables the people of Israel to once again find God’s face; to turn away from the subtle idols of wealth and greed and to bring God’s holiness into their midst.
In Rebbe Nachman of Breslov‘s terms, it is only through this song of faith, this assertion of meaning, hope, and possibility, that one leaps over the abyss of God’s hiddenness to encounter the truth of anokhi–I-ness, that is both God’s true face and our own.
It is easy to get lost, to find ourselves unwittingly acting in ways estranged from our fundamental principles. Yet we can find our way to a life that embodies those core beliefs by manifesting our true self through the hope, confidence, and power, which is the nature of song. Song, that fundamental assertion of joy and meaning, can remind us of our authentic self and our genuine power. Through it, we can transform the way we live and fully embrace our true nature–our potential to transform ourselves and the world. In so doing, the deep anokhi, the true faces of both ourselves and God, will be revealed.
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The Second Mountain (Vayelech 5779)
What do you do when you have achieved it all, when you have risen to whatever career heights fate or providence has in store for you? What do you do as age lengthens its shadow, the sun sinks, and the body is no longer as resilient or the mind as sharp as it once was?
That has become a major problem as life expectancy has increased in most parts of the world. There has been nothing quite like it in history. In America, in 1900, average life expectancy was around 41 years, in Europe 42.5. Today in Britain, for men it is 79, for women 83. Much of that has to do with a huge reduction in infant mortality. None the less, the sheer pace in the rise in longevity – every decade since 1900, life expectancy has risen by about three years – remains remarkable. What will keep you young in spirit even if the body does not always keep pace?
The biblical case study is Moses, of whom we are told that even at the end of his life, “his eye was undimmed and his natural energy unabated.” At the opening of today’s parsha he says, “I am now a hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer come and go, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’” Rashi points out that the “I can no longer” does not mean that he lacked the strength. It means that he no longer had permission. The moment had come when he had to hand on the role of leader to his successor and disciple, Joshua. He himself stayed full of vigour, as the passion of his speeches in the book of Devarim, delivered in the last month of his life, testify.
To understand what Moses epitomises at the end of his life, two closely related concepts are helpful. The first is Erik Erikson’s idea of generativity, the seventh of his eight life stages. Relatively late in life, he argues, many people’s perspective changes. They begin thinking about legacy, about what will outlive them. Their focus often shifts from self to others. They may devote more time to family, or community, or care or voluntary work. Some mentor young people who are following in their career path. They make commitments to others. They ask themselves, how can I contribute to the world? What trace will I leave on those who will live on after me? What, in the world, is better because of me?
The second and related idea is David Brook’s concept of the second mountain. Speaking to people over 70, he found that early in their lives they had identified the mountain they were going to climb. They had specific aspirations about family and career. They had a vision of the self they wanted to become. By age 70, some had achieved it and were happy. Others had achieved it only to find it not entirely satisfying. Yet others had been knocked off the mountain by misfortune.
At a certain age, though, many identified a second mountain they wanted to climb. This mountain was not about achieving but about giving. It was less about external accomplishment (success, fame) than about internal accomplishment. It was spiritual, moral; it was about devoting yourself to a cause or giving back to the community. It is often, he says, a yearning for righteousness, an inner voice that says, “I want to do something really good with my life.” This second peak, associated with later life, may well prove more significant to our sense of self-worth than the ego-driven ascent of the first mountain.
The case of Moses sets all this in dramatic perspective. What do you do if you have already achieved what no human being had ever done before or would ever do in the future? Moses had spoken to God face to face. He had become His faithful servant. He had led his people from slavery to freedom, put up with their complaints, endured their rebellions and prayed for – and achieved – their forgiveness in the eyes of God. He had been the agent through which God had performed His miracles and delivered His word. What else is left to do after such a life?
His closest friends and allies, his sister Miriam and brother Aaron, had already died. He knew that the decree had been sealed that he would not cross the Jordan and lead the people on the last stage of their journey. He would not set foot in the Promised Land. Unlike Aaron, whose children inherited his priesthood to eternity, Moses had to live with the fact that neither of his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, would become his successor. That role would go to his assistant and faithful servant Joshua. These were, surely, huge disappointments to set alongside the momentous achievements.
So, as Moses faced his own life’s end, what was there left to do? The book of Devarim contains and constitutes the answer. As it says in its opening chapter: “In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the Israelites … On the east bank of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began expounding this law …” No longer the liberator and miracle-worker, Moses became Rabbenu, “our teacher,” the man who taught Torah to the next generation.
The way he does so in Devarim is stunning. No longer, as before, does he simply articulate the law. He explains the theology behind the law. He speaks about the love of God for Israel and the love Israel should show to God. He speaks with equal power about the past and the future, reviewing the wilderness years and anticipating the challenges ahead.
Above all, coming at the subject from every conceivable direction, he warns the young people who will enter and inherit the land, that the real challenge will not be failure but success; not slavery but freedom; not the bread of affliction but the temptations of affluence. Remember, he says again and again; listen to the voice of God; rejoice in what He has given you. These are the key verbs of the book, and they remain the most powerful immune-system ever developed against the decadence-and-decline that has affected every civilisation since the dawn of time.
That last month in Moses’ life, which culminates in today’s parsha as he finally hands over the reins of leadership to Joshua, is one of the supreme instances in Tanakh of generativity: speaking not to your contemporaries but to those who will live on after you. It was Moses’ second mountain.
And perhaps the very things that seemed, at first sight, to have been disappointments, turned out in the end to have played their part in shaping this last chapter in that great life. The fact that he knew he would not accompany the people into the land, and that he would not be succeeded by his sons, meant that he had to turn into a teacher of the next generation. He had to hand on to them his insights into the future. He had to make the people his disciples – and we have all been his disciples ever since.
All of this suggests a powerful and potentially life changing message for all of us. Whatever our life has been thus far, there is another chapter to be written, focused on being a blessing to others, sharing whatever gifts we have with those who have less, handing on our values across the generations, using our experience to help others come through difficult times of their own, doing something that has little to do with personal ambition and much to do with wanting to leave some legacy of kindness that made life better for at least someone on earth.
Hence the life-changing idea: Whatever your achievements, there is always a second mountain to climb, and it may turn out to be your greatest legacy to the future.
From Rabbi Avram Davis
– The parsha of this week speaks of Gd hiding His face and the difficulties and catastrophes that come from that. Then the advice: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be …remembered” This is similar to last weeks parsha where it says: “this teaching is not mysterious…it is in your mouth to know it and to do it…” They both speak of an intimacy. A close, in-the-body (in the mouth), way of knowing reality and truth. The traditional Torah path is replete with details. And details on the details. But it is also good to always remember the sequence. From the large to the small. Gd is close. The infinite can be tasted in the mouth. Love is ultimately stronger than death. And the personal and the intimate are gateways to the Personalness of the universe. Shena Tova. Good shabbos.
Affirming And Spreading Our Core Values
The final commandments in the Torah, to gather as a community to hear the Torah and to write down a spiritual legacy, encourage us to re-engage with our core values.
BY RABBI GERRY SEROTTA
Like the ancient Israelites taking a deep breath on the last day of the life of Moses, before the upcoming transitions in leadership, we read Parashat Vayeilech every year during a time around the High Holy Days when we seek new meaning and direction in our own lives.
This portion, whose name comes from the Hebrew root for movement, is frequently read together with another portion, Nitzavim, which means standing firmly in place. This juxtaposition implies that, ironically, we move and grow most successfully when we are like trees, firmly planted in a soil rich with experience and tradition, but nurtured alongside living and moving streams.
Parashat Vayeilech contains the last two of the traditional counting of 613 commandments, both of which can connect with the spiritual work we need to do in this transitional period, both for the individual and the community.
In the Torah narrative, Moses completes the writing of the Torah and hands it over to the kohanim, the priests, and the elders. He instructs them to read it to the people at regular intervals, not to keep it to themselves as a private esoteric document. He also prepares and writes down his final “song,” a moralistic epic poem to be read and remembered regularly. It will serve as a witness to the fallibility of the people about to enter into possession of a holy land.
From these texts, the Rabbis extract the following mitzvot, or commandments: (1) the entire people and those who identify with them must be gathered every seven years to hear some specific teachings publicly; and (2) every individual must write down this spiritual legacy.
This second commandment was originally understood to mean that everyone is required to make his or her own copy of the Torah. As Jewish law developed, this was modified to include support for the writing of any sacred literature, whether taken from the “written” Torah or its oral (rabbinic) interpretation.
A less literal expression of this commandment is the creation of an ethical will, a statement of one’s own interpretation of the spiritual lessons we derive from our tradition and wish to pass on to future generations. This tradition of writing an ethical will has a venerable pedigree in Jewish history, extending from ancient times to today, through which Jews act upon the felt obligation to summarize and pass on the lessons of our lives.
The penultimate command of the Torah is referred to as hakhel, meaning “gather” or “assemble” the people. This sabbatical retreat has some very unusual features. The gathering occurs on the harvest festival, Sukkot , following the year in which there has been no harvest — the sabbatical or shmita year, in which the land has been given its rest.
All of the people are expected to assemble: men and women, children and elders–and not only the Jewish people, but also the local non-Jewish residents are invited to participate. In fact, Sukkot, on which the gathering takes place, was in Temple times the most universal of the national holidays, when sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the nations of the world.
The traditional prophetic reading, or Haftarah, which the Rabbis connected to Parashat Vayeilech is taken from Isaiah (55:6-56:8). It contains a précis of universal morality and a strong emphasis on the interconnection of matters of spirit and justice. The prophet declares: “Seek the Eternal while God can be found; observe what is right and do what is just. Let not the foreigner who has attached himself to the Eternal say, ‘The Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people’…for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Why is this particular gathering designated to be so inclusive, and what are the texts the gathered are supposed to learn? The three segments read are all from Deuteronomy: (1) the recapitulation of Exodus history through the giving of Ten Commandments, and the passages contained in the Shema and V’ahavta prayers (1:1-6:9) (2) the section which describes the relationship of moral human behavior to the ecology of the land (11:13-21); and (3) a potpourri of laws including the intrepid pursuit of justice (tzedek, tzedek tirdof), concluding with the blessings and curses which are the consequences of moral action or inaction (14:22-28:69).
Interestingly, these particular sections parallel the path prescribed in the Talmud for a person who wishes to join the Jewish people: (a) recognize the traumas of the Jewish past; (b) learn some of the laws of justice seeking, particularly the laws pertaining to the responsibility we have toward the poor and vulnerable; and (c) recognize the consequences of moral failure for the earth and its inhabitants.
But even more striking is the fact that together, these very last commandments in the Torah demand that the entire Jewish people periodically re-engage ourselves with our tradition’s core values, and then share our legacy with neighbors–according to Isaiah, with all the nations.
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From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Live From Your Depths
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE HIDDEN FACE – Parshat Yayeilech
The passing of Elie Wiesel this summer prompted us to speak once again of the hiddenness of God.
For among Wiesel’s many contributions to Jewish discourse, this was one of the most important: a stark and unforgiving declaration of God’s absence from the world, in light of the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust. It was a matter of some debate whether or not Wiesel was describing his struggle to have faith in the very existence of God, or if – as Wiesel more often described it – he always believed that there was a God, but that this God had acted so unjustly, had been so oblivious to our sufferings, as to merit nothing from us but our outrage. Whatever the precise formulation, it was clear that Wiesel was giving voice to a question which many Jews needed an answer to after the Holocaust: in the language of one of the characters from his most famous work, Night, “For God’s sake, where is God?”
In fact, though Elie Wiesel may be its greatest modern articulator, that question stretches all the way back in Jewish thought. There is even a well-established term in classical Jewish literature for the concept of God’s hiddenness: Hester Panim, or, the ‘Hiding of God’s Face.’ That phrasing is borrowed from a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeilech, that describes God’s response to future idol-worship:
And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” But I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities. (Deut. 31:18)
וְאָמַר, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, הֲלֹא עַל כִּי-אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי, מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה. וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים
There is, here among the first generations of Israelites, already a sense of God’s abandonment. And God seems to confirm their suspicions with this enigmatic language: haster astir panai, ‘I will hide My face…’
Rashi refers to this ‘hiding’ as the worst possible punishment God could threaten:
There is no more terrible prophecy than the moment Moses delivered the words, “I will hide My face…” (Rashi’s commentary on Isaiah 8:17)
אין לך נבואה קשה כאותה שעה שאמר משה ( דברים לא ) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני
Terrible – but what does it mean? What is the nature of this divine hiddenness?
The classical commentators – Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Seforno – mostly suggest that this hiding refers to God’s unwillingness to intervene to save the people from suffering. Ibn Ezra puts it bluntly, as if speaking in God’s own voice:
If they call on Me, I will not answer.
שאם יקראו עלי לא אענם
This hiding is indeed meant as a punishment. God still exists, of course, but has turned His back on the people, and withdrawn from the world. It is up to God, then to reveal Godself once again.
Centuries later, the Chassidic commentators will describe God’s hiding not as a true withdrawal, but an illusion that must be overcome. Here the Degel Machaneh Ephraim recounts the metaphor for Hester Panim given by his grandfather, the Ba’al Shem Tov:
This is like a ruler who built many barriers around his palace, so that no one would enter it. But they were all optical illusions. And he hid inside, separated from his children, surrounded by walls, and fire, and rivers – but all just illusions. But the wisest child knew better – how was it possible that his merciful father would not want to see the faces of his beloved children? This must be an illusion that the father was using to test his children, to see if they would try to come see him. For in truth, there is no hiding. And so, as soon as he risked his life and walked into the river, the illusion disappeared and he was able to walk across. And so it was with all the barriers, until he came into the ruler’s palace.
המשל הוא למלך שעשה כמה מחיצות באחיזת עינים לפני היכלו שלא יוכלו ליכנס אליו ונסתתר שם ועשה חומות ואש ונהרות באחיזת עינים הכל לפני בניו. והנה, מי שהיה חכם נתן לב לדבר איך אפשר שאביו הרחמן לא יתרצה להראות פניו לבניו ידידיו, אין זה כי אם אחיזת עינים והאב רוצה לנסות אם ישתדל הבן לבא אליו ובאמת אין שום הסתרה. והנה, מיד כשמסר לנפשו לילך בנהר נסתר אחיזת עינים ועבר בו וכן בכל המחיצות עד שבא להיכל המלך
In this imagery, God is still hiding, but now with the secret desire to be found. And notice that the agency has shifted from God to human beings. It is upon us to see through illusions, and to search for the God who is still there, and only appears to have abandoned us.
The most startling commentary on Hester Panim, however, is to be found in the Talmud. Our verse is referenced in a strange discussion in Tractate Hulin (139b), in which the rabbis are searching for hidden clues in the Torah that predict the appearance of future characters in the Hebrew Bible. In particular, they are interested in finding allusions to the Book of Esther, the tale of Jewish persecution in ancient Persia. And so they ask:
Where is Esther to be found in the Torah? From the verse, “I will hide [my face],” haster astir …
אסתר מן התורה מנין (דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר
The linguistic connection is clear, just by the sound of the words: Esther / haster / astir. But what does it mean to say that this verse alludes to Esther? Is there something in the concept of divine hiddenness that predicts her coming?
At this point, one obvious connection requires mentioning. For the Book of Esther, it so happens, is the only book in the Hebrew Bible from which God is totally absent.* This is an entirely human drama, and the fight for survival takes no recourse to divine salvation. It is up to the heroes of the story – Mordechai, and particularly Esther – to save the day. Esther, counsels Mordechai, must reveal her Jewishness to her husband the King, in order to secure his protection for her people. Which she does, at great personal risk – and successfully. The Jews are saved, thanks to the great bravery of Esther. God, it seems, is not the savior in this story.
There may, however, be more to it than that. In his message asking for Esther’s help, Mordechai seems to hint that greater forces are at work. He warns her:
If you keep silent in this moment, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your household shall perish. And who knows, perhaps you have arrived at this royal position for just such a moment. (Esther 4:14)
כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת
What is Mordechai saying? What is this deliverance from “some other place”? Is this an oblique reference to God? And what does he mean that Esther has come into power “for just such a moment”? Is this Divine Providence working Its will, or are these just the winds of fate that have blown Esther here?
These are questions that have busied the commentators through the ages. One thing that is clear, however, is that in the end, Esther plays the role that we might have expected God to play. If God exists in this world, God is hidden. Whatever salvation we are to witness will be carried out by human beings.
And that is why the allusion to Esther in the Torah is contained in a verse that speaks of the hiddenness of God. For it was to her that we turned when God seemed totally absent. At the very moment that God’s face was hidden, Esther revealed herself.
In fact, if Esther is to be found in the the Hiddenness of God, we might also say that it is in Esther that God is hiding. Esther’s majestic revelation was a manifestation of divinity in a world that seemed completely absent of it.
And perhaps that is always the way. When God is most hidden from the world, we must find our salvation in other people. In human displays of courage and compassion we see sparks of divinity, illuminating the darkness of this terrifying existence.
So it was also with Elie Wiesel, whose works were at once an indictment of an absent God, and a stunning manifestation of divine wisdom and beauty, emerging from the midst of darkness. May his memory be a blessing for us all, and may his words continue to light our path into a better day.
* Some would also add the Song of Songs, but one description of love in its final chapter has it glowing like a ‘shalhevetya,’ (8:6) which many translate as a “flame of God.”
From the Maqam Project</strong>
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
Torah as Song (Vayelech 5775)
Moses’ long and tempestuous career is about to end. With words of blessing and encouragement he hands on the mantle of leadership to his successor Joshua, saying, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today. I may no longer go out and come in, since the Lord has said to me, you will not cross this Jordan.” (31:2). As Rashi notes, he says, “I may not” not “I cannot.” He is still in full bodily vigour, “his eye undimmed and his natural energy unabated.” But he has reached the end of his personal road. The time had come for another age, a new generation, and a different kind of leader.
But before he takes his leave of life God has one last command for him, and through him, for the future: “And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me among the children of Israel” (32:19). The plain sense of the verse is that God was commanding Moses and Joshua to write out the song that follows, that of Haazinu (32:1-43). So Rashi and Nahmanides understand it. But the oral tradition read it differently.
According to the sages, “And now write for yourselves” applies to the Torah as a whole. Thus the last of all the 613 commands is to write – or at least take part in writing, if only a single letter – a Torah scroll. Here is Maimonides’ statement of the law:
Every Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it says, “Now therefore write this song,” meaning, “Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah that contains this song,” since we do not write isolated passages of the Torah [but only a complete scroll]. Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from his parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if he had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a scribe] to do it for him, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if he has written a whole scroll. 
Why this command? Why then, at the end of Moses’ life? Why make it the last of all the commands? And if the reference is to the Torah as a whole, why call it a “song”?
The oral tradition is here hinting at a set of very deep ideas. First, it is telling the Israelites, and us in every generation, that it is not enough to say, “We received the Torah from Moses,” or “from our parents.” We have to take the Torah and make it new in every generation. We have to write our own scroll. The point about the Torah is not that it is old but that it is new; it is not just about the past but about the future. It is not simply some ancient document that comes from an earlier era in the evolution of society. It speaks to us, here, now – but not without our making the effort to write it again.
There are two Hebrew words for an inheritance: nachalah and yerushah/ morashah. They convey different ideas. Nachalah is related to the word nachal, meaning a river, a stream. As water flows downhill, so an inheritance flows down the generations. It happens naturally. It needs no effort on our part.
A yerushah / morashah is different. Here the verb is active. It means to take possession of something by a positive deed or effort. The Israelites received the land as a result of God’s promise to Abraham. It was their legacy, but they nonetheless had to fight battles and win wars. Lehavdil, Mozart and Beethoven were both born to musical fathers. Music was in their genes, but their art was the result of almost endless hard work. Torah is a morashah, not a nachalah. We need to write it for ourselves, not merely inherit it from our ancestors.
And why call the Torah a song? Because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing. Torah must be affective, not just cognitive. It must speak to our emotions. As Antonio Damasio showed empirically in Descartes’ Error, though the reasoning part of the brain is central to what makes us human, it is the limbic system, the seat of the emotions, that leads us to choose this way, not that. If our Torah lacks passion, we will not succeed in passing it on to the future. Music is the affective dimension of communication, the medium through which we express, evoke and share emotion. Precisely because we are creatures of emotion, music is an essential part of the vocabulary of mankind.
Music has a close association with spirituality. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it:
Words still go softly out towards the unsayable.
And music always new, from palpitating stones
Builds in useless space its godly home.
Song is central to the Judaic experience. We do not pray; we daven, meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah. Instead we chant it, each word with its own cantillation. Even rabbinical texts are never merely studies; we chant them with the particular sing-song known to all students of Talmud. Each time and text has its specific melodies. The same prayer may be sung to half-a-dozen different tunes depending on whether it is part of the morning, afternoon or evening service, and whether the day is a weekday, a Sabbath, a festival or one of the High Holy Day. There are different cantillation for biblical readings, depending on whether the text comes from Torah, the prophets, or the Ketuvim, ‘the writings’. Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic landscape.
Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it modulates into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. Music speaks to something deeper than the mind. If we are to make Torah new in every generation we have to find ways of singing its song a new way. The words never change, but the music does.
A previous Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, once told me a story about two great Rabbinic sages of the nineteenth century, equally distinguished scholars, one of whom lost his children to the secular spirit of the age, the other of whom was blessed by children who followed in his path. The difference between them was this, he said: when it came to se’udah shlishit, the third Sabbath meal, the former spoke words of Torah while the latter sang songs. His message was clear. Without an affective dimension – without music – Judaism is a body without a soul. It is the songs we teach our children that convey our love of God.
Some years ago one of the leaders of world Jewry wanted to find out what had happened to the “missing Jewish children” of Poland, those who, during the war, had been adopted by Christians families and brought up as Catholics. He decided that the easiest way was through food. He organized a large banquet and placed advertisements in the polish press, inviting whoever believed they had been born a Jew to come to this free dinner. Hundreds came, but the evening was on the brink of disaster since none of those present could remember anything of their earliest childhood – until the man asked the person sitting next to him if he could remember the song his Jewish mother had sung to him before going to sleep. He began to sing Rozhinkes mit mandlen (‘Raisins and almonds’) the old Yiddish lullaby. Slowly others joined in, until the whole room was a chorus. Sometimes all that is left of Jewish identity is a song.
Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein in the introduction to the Arukh ha-Shulchan, Choshen Mishpat, writes that the Torah is compared to a song because, to those who appreciate music, the most beautiful choral sound is a complex harmony with many different voices singing different notes. So, he says, it is with the Torah and its myriad commentaries, its “seventy faces.” Judaism is a choral symphony scored for many voices, the written text its melody, the oral tradition its polyphony.
So it is with a poetic sense of closure that Moses’ life ends with the command to begin again in every generation, writing our own scroll, adding our own commentaries, the people of the book endlessly reinterpreting the book of the people, and singing its song. The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir. Collectively we have sung God’s song. We are the performers of His choral symphony. And though, when Jews speak they often argue, when they sing, they sing in harmony, because words are the language of the mind but music is the language of the soul.
 Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah, 7:1
 Antonio Damasio, Descartes error: emotion, reason, and the human brain, London, Pengiun, 2005.
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 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 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 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 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]
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 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
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