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Parashat Vayeilekh – 5782

September 29, 2022

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

This past week thousands of Jews gathered in person and online to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We now find ourselves in the midst of עשרת ימי תשובה, the 10 days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur. Yet, even during this week between the Yamim Noraim we continue with our regular Torah reading cycle. This week of Shabbat Shuvah we read the short parashah of Vayeilekh in which Moses announces to the Israelites that he has reached 120 years of age and will no longer lead the Israelites forward.

At this time in our Jewish calendar of sacred gatherings, I would like to explore three instances in our parashah in which all of the Israelites gather together. At the very outset of the portion, Moses speaks to “all of Israel” and encourages them to be strong and resolute (חזקו ואמצו; Deut. 31:6). For this moment in which there is a transition of leadership and in which the Israelites face the unknown dangers of entering into the Promised Land they are understandably anxious. Moses thus reassures them that they need not fear for God will be with them. Immediately following this communal declaration, Moses summons Yehoshua before the eyes of all the people and encourages him with the same words as he spoke to the people – be strong and resolute (חזק ואמץ; Deut. 31:7). The new leader of the people is not so different from the others Israelites – he shares their fears and anxieties. And Moses wants the people to see that Yehoshua is no different, that he is one of them, and that the same words of encouragement Moses offered for the people as a whole are needed by their new leader. Through Moses’ actions we see the importance of reminding the people of the humanity and fragility of their leaders who are truly no different than anyone else.

In the second instance of communal assembly in this week’s parashah, Moses commands about a future gathering for the Shemitah year. The Kohanim are to assemble all of the people – the men, the women, the children, and the foreigner among them (Deut. 31:12) – in order to hear the recitation of the Torah. Explicitly delineating each of the community’s social groups of antiquity, from those who fully participated in religious rituals to those who were not fully a part of the Israelite community, Moses emphasizes that the Torah and its precepts are for all. The Torah and its vision for Jewish life are not the property the elite alone, but are to be shared directly with the entire collective.

The final mention of gathering in our parashah comes at the end of the reading and contains dimensions of ambiguity. Moses is keenly aware that the Israelites have rebelled during his lifetime and will surely continue to do so after his death. He thus requests that all of the elders of the tribes and their officials come to him in order to hear his words about the future misdeeds of the people (Deut. 31:28). And yet, in the final verse of the chapter, Moses does not just speak to the leadership but to the entire congregation of Israel (כל קהל ישראל; Deut. 31:30). Did Moses change his mind? Did the elders begin to gather only to be followed by the rest of the people? The text does not provide an obvious explanation. But this is not the only surprising element of this gathering. The exhortation that Moses intends to deliver to the people warning them against their future iniquities is described as a “song” (שירה). Indeed, next week’s parashah, Ha’azinu, is generally understood as the song that Moses sings to the people. Why a song? Perhaps it is more easily remembered, more pleasing to the ear despite its disconcerting message. Songs are powerful vehicles for evoking a visceral response. Moses thus suggests to us that when encouraging mindfulness of our actions we might do so through song as a tool that can often be more effective than mere words.

As we gather together at this time of year I draw three lessons for the season from these three instances of communal assembly. Our leaders are essentially no different from others in our community – anyone in our community can become a leader, and leaders also need their own opportunity for prayer and teshuvah, as well as time for rest after the emotionally draining High Holidays. Second, the Torah that we share year round, and especially in these days when our sacred spaces are packed with listeners, is for all of us, not just those for whom Judaism is already a part of their daily life rhythm. Finally, the power of song for transformation. As our hazzanim know so well, the evocative melodies of this season have the power to connect us to God and one another, to inspire us towards reflection and change.

As we continue through this holiday season, may our leaders serve as imitable role models, may our words of Torah inspire everyone in our extended communities, and may our songs draw us closer to achieving our communal goals.

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.