Parashat Vayeilekh 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeilekh
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Shanah tovah! As we transition into a new Jewish year we also near the completion of our annual reading of the Torah and prepare to begin the cycle again. This week, at the beginning of parashat Vayeilekh, Moses speaks briefly to the Israelites before turning his attention to Joshua. With Joshua poised to take the helm, Moses offers him a few words of wisdom before he leads the people into the promised land. I would suggest that the beginning of our parasha not only offers sagacious advice for Joshua and the Israelites, but also provides important guidance and reminders for contemporary Jewish leaders. I would like to highlight three lessons that emerge as we look closely at the beginning of Deuteronomy 31.

First, the very name of our parasha evokes movement – vayeilekh, and he went. Yet, Moses begins by informing us that given his advanced age he is no longer able to come and go as he once did, nor will he traverse the Jordan river. Three of the verbs that Moses employs – to exit (יצא), to come (בוא), and to traverse (עבר) – reflect purposeful movement; one goes in or out in a particular direction and one intentionally crosses over boundaries. By contrast, the opening verb of going (הלך) lacks a concrete sense of directionality. But, the verb הלך appears again as Moses reiterates to the Israelites that God will go with them (הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ; v. 6), suggesting that הלך in our parasha is more about accompanying others. At this point in his career Moses no longer guides the people as he once did, yet this does not stop him from moving with them. Moses teaches us the value of recognizing our limits, to know when we must step back – while also encouraging us to continue moving together with others. While Moses may no longer be in a position to go in or out, or to cross rivers, he nevertheless goes with the people until his death.

In verse 3, Moses relates to the Israelites that they shall have two guides in their journey; both God and Joshua will “cross over before you” (עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ). However, in his charge to Joshua (v. 7), Moses informs the new leader that he will be the one to bring the people into the promised land: “for it is you who shall go with this people into the land.” This verse uses an unexpected conjugation of the verb to go – תָּבוֹא. Given the sense of the verse, we would expect Moses to use the conjugation “to bring,” תָּבִיא, so why is there a vav instead of a yud? The Zivhei Tzedek (R. Peter Stein) suggests that the plene orthography emphasizes that Joshua will not really be the one to bring the people to the land, rather it will be God who actually takes this role (as emphasized in v. 20). The contrast between what Moses says to the people and the hint that Moses includes in his words to Joshua teaches us that as leaders we must be attuned to the moments when we must both lead and follow simultaneously. The people will see Joshua more concretely as the one who brings them into the land, but Joshua must recognize the ways in which while leading the people he also follows God who will pass before him (v. 8).

Finally, in the beginning of our parasha Moses encourages people to be strong and resolute (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ) three times – once to the Israelites (v. 6) and twice to Joshua (v. 7 and 23). As much as the general community might need support in their resilience, our leadership needs this even more as they not only have their own personal challenges but help to bear those of others as well.

As we begin this new year may we recognize our limitations, knowing when to step back and when to follow, but nevertheless continue forward in the ways that we are able with strength and resolution to help guide those in our care.

Shanah tovah!
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.