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Parashat Vayeilekh 5780

October 3, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeilekh
By Rabbi David Markus

Rosh Hashanah brings a spiritual lag between the year’s reboot and Torah’s reboot, like our northern latitude’s seasonal lag between sun angle and temperature. This spiritual lag raises two questions. First, shouldn’t Rosh Hashanah, which recalls the Yom Harat Olam (Creation’s birthday) of Genesis 1, therefore also be Simhat Torah to reboot the Torah cycle at the same time? Second, precisely because Simhat Torah lags behind by over three weeks, what spiritual meaning to make of this lag and this week’s Torah portion (Vayeilekh) that begins to fill it?

Talmud’s explanation for the lag is that Rosh Hashanah should follow only after we read Torah’s “curses” of consequence for disobedience (Megillah 31b). That’s Deuteronomic theology in a nutshell: spiritually speaking, we get what we deserve and we deserve what we get.

To me, Talmud’s premise doesn’t hold. Even if we accept Deuteronomic theology (and many don’t), we still could time our Torah cycle to finish Torah’s “curses” and begin fresh on Rosh Hashanah. What’s more, reading Vayeilekh immediately after Rosh Hashanah seems to violate Talmud’s “clean start” premise. Vayeilekh records a sharp prediction of our ancestors’ straying and suffering that, Talmud imagines, we shouldn’t invoke at Rosh Hashanah (Deut. 31:17-18).

One response is that Talmud was wrong: we should read Vayeilekh exactly now, as a timely reminder that we will stray. Torah brings to the new year’s first week a call to seek the sacred amidst the spiritual hiddenness we create when we act wrongly in the world. We’re to know that when we stray, we may feel like “God is not in our midst” (Deut. 31:17). In Deuteronomy-speak, this inner sense of consequence, feeling distant from God, is our inducement to do teshuvah and ramp up to the immanent Presence of purification we invoke on Yom Kippur.

In this sense, the Torah cycle’s spiritual lag between Rosh Hashanah and Simhat Torah has a purpose: to help prepare us for what’s ahead. It’s much like the seasonal lag between sun angle and temperature. This seasonal lag gives nature a chance to transition, lest too-fast cold snaps freeze needed preparation for winter or too-late cold snaps nip spring in the bud. In mid-latitude climates, nature evolved accordingly.

Hence a second response to Talmud’s quandary. Vayeilekh proclaims now, in this first Torah portion after Rosh Hashanah, in the spiritual lag timed to our seasonal lag: hazak ve-ematz. This proclamation comes not once but three times. “Be strong and courageous,” Moses tells the people (Deut. 31:6). “Be strong and courageous,” Moses tells Joshua (Deut. 31:7). “Be strong and courageous,” Moses tells Joshua again (Deut. 31:23).

Hazak times three – itself a hazakah, a repetition with emphatic force, in Jewish law a “presumption” to structure mind and heart. We are to enter this special lag time with special strength and courage – but what kind? Is it a hard winter-layered covering, or something else?

Admittedly, Torah’s plot is militaristic: “strong and courageous” literally was to act without fear so that our ancestors could conquer the enemy – an external winter hardness. But even Torah’s militaristic plot makes clear the cause of fearless strength and courage: “for God is the One who walks with you” (Deut. 31:6). Ibn Ezra goes further: strength and courage come from knowing that God is with us (Ibn Ezra, Deut. 31:6). Strength and courage are internal, borne of deeply knowing holiness within. Alshich (1508-1593) adds a collective gloss: strength and courage come from knowing collectively that God is with us in our unity (Alshich, Deut. 31:6).

Those two purposes – inner knowing and collective unity – are the Vayeilekh founts of spiritual becoming and the deep calling of this moment’s spiritual lag. During these Days of Awe, we stand together, just as we will confess in the plural on Yom Kippur. We become together. We inter-are together. Our spiritual strength is not a hard winter shell of separation but a sweet inner softness that’s courageous enough for inner truths that transcend our precious individual selves.

Only with this kind of courage can we be truly strong together. Only then can we truly battle the world’s enmity and repair all that is broken. In that merit, may we all soften together into this season of sweet renewal, strength and courage, truth and repair. Shanah tovah!
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.