You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayelech.
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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From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Second Mountain
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.
Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.
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
Vayelech: Torah as Song
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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