PARASHAH: Vayelekh (He went)
ADDRESS: D'varim (Deuteronomy) 31:1-30
READING DATE: Shabbat
AUTHOR: Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)
Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:
atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
you have selected us from among all the peoples,
and have given us your Torah.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
The portion known as Vayelekh gets its name from the opening pasuk (verse),
“Vayelekh Moshe vayedaber et-hadevarim ha'eleh el-kol-Yisra'el” (Moshe went and spoke the following words to all Isra'el).
The story picks up as a continuation of the previous portion. To be sure, in regular years, Vayelekh is read with the previous parashah called Nitzavim. Moshe, the designated leader of ’Am Yisra’el (the people of Isra’el), is nearing his final days on this earth. At 120 years old, he is ready to pass the responsibility on to Y’hoshua (Joshua), his faithful servant. He reminds the people that because of HaShem’s punishment, he himself will not accompany them, but that Y’hoshua will lead them into the land promised to them. His encouragement to be strong and reliant on the protection of the Almighty, despite the seeming opposition ahead, is typical of this most famous leader of Isra’el.
From Moshe to Y’hoshua
Of the 120 years that Moshe lived, a better part of his last third was spent in encouraging this young nation to press on to the greatness that HaShem had called them into. I personally think that at this point in his life, and in the lives of the people, this compassionate servant of the LORD knew that they needed to hear this type of message, and that the only one suitable for delivering it to them was he himself. The fact that in verses 7 and 8 he publicly admonishes Y’hoshua to leadership, was also a very wise administrative action, not to mention, necessary. When the people witnessed this passing of the “mantle of responsibility” between these two great leaders (one already proven in faithful service, while the other possessing great potential), it only reaffirmed to Isra’el, the confidence that Moshe had in Y’hoshua. It served at a visible statement to let the people know that “Since you trusted me, and I can trust Y’hoshua, then you can trust him also”.
HaShem himself then summons the two men into the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) for the official transfer of leadership. Being in the military, I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand, the type of change of command procedure that I believe is taking place here. The outgoing commander gives the “troops” his final challenge. He encourages them to show his successor, the incoming commander, the same loyalty and trust that they have shown him. In a way, HaShem picks up on this theme of challenge and runs with it. In fact, as we read further into the passage, we see that he runs quite far with it.
“...this song can be a witness for me against the people of Isra’el.” (31:19b)
Having warned the people about their coming days of lawlessness (verses 16-18), HaShem then commands Moshe to teach them a song of remembrance (verse19-22), which will serve as a witness for their God, against the people of Isra’el. The actual song itself is recorded for us in Chapter 32, but we shall have to wait until next week’s parashah to examine it. But why does HaShem keep reminding them of their upcoming failure to obey him? From a cursory glance, it appears rather pessimistic and disheartening. In fact, it may strike the average reader as being too harsh and challenging. But we need to understand the heart of the Father here. His (loving) chastening does appear, at first, to be too much for us to bear, but as we begin to see the “big picture” we will understand it more.
In order to understand why HaShem uses Moshe to point out the downfalls of the people, we must read what it says in verses 24-29 again carefully. I won’t quote it all here; I want you to read it for yourself. Allow me to use material from a previous commentary that I’ve written to explain it to you: Prior to coming to faith, the Torah served as a reminder of sin (Romans 7:7-12). This is not the only function of Torah, but it is a primary one. After coming into a relationship with HaShem, through His Son Yeshua (Jesus), the [person] underwent a change in relationship to the Torah. The Avrahamic (Abrahamic) Covenant became for him or her, a “promise of inheritance”. An “inheritance” of what? Of “eternal life”, through trusting faithfulness. It became their “proof of ownership” so-to-say. It still reminded him or her of their sin. However, because we now constitute the Righteousness of HaShem (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Ephesians 2:1-10), we are now free to pursue following HaShem without the threat of death for disobedience! To be sure, the Torah spelled certain death for some disobedient acts committed by the supposed covenant follower (see: Exodus 31:12-18 “Sabbath violation”). Even the New Covenant Scriptures teach that “the wages (payment) of sin is death”. But now Yeshua’s atoning death has “redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13, KJV). “Death” and “condemnation” is no longer our wages (Romans 6:23; 8:1).
Do you understand how this all applies? The Torah is HaShem’s measuring rod for disobedience. To be sure, this is what he said in verse 26 of our present parashah. Even the New Covenant Scriptures echo this same teaching consistently throughout the above-mentioned book of Romans. This happens, the Torah teaches us in both the TaNaKH and the B’rit Chadashah, “in order that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world be shown to deserve God’s adverse judgment. For in his sight no one alive will be considered righteous…(Psalm 143:2; Romans 3:19).” Now this specifically applied to those within the framework of the Torah, of which the Jewish Nation surely was! The budding young nation that we read about in our current parashah had already begun to live within that framework, which was initiated at the “Mount Sinai experience”. HaShem was training them to become dependant upon his grace alone to get them out of “hot water”. This is why he established the elaborate system of sacrifice; they must be taught to operate according to trust. Things were to be done according to the plan of the Holy One of Yisra’el! It would take his loving provision to restore the fellowship that was lost as a result of sin. A Jewish person living in the time period of the TaNaKH could only approach the Holy God according to the instructions of the Torah! For only God could repair the breach!
Even though our portion does not explicitly state these terms of the covenant, we know them to be true from previous teachings in the Torah; teachings even prior to parashah Vayelekh. The Word of HaShem is eternal and unchanging. Likewise, his nature is eternal and unchanging. Does it, therefore, surprise us to find HaShem challenging his children to learn how to do things his way? Performance-based righteousness was never the plan of the Holy One! The Torah will always serve to remind us that we all fall short of the goal, when we try to accomplish things our own way. By reminding us of our shortcomings, the purpose of HaShem is accomplished—we fall desperately into his means of provision for our sin! When we then accept HaShem on his terms and his terms only, we have no choice but to accept his Messiah! This is not legalism, too harsh thinking, or even “narrow-mindedness”. This is pure LOVE! Had it not been for Yeshua providing the only way back to the Father, we would all be without hope! Think about it: a man only accepts the hand of his rescuer, once he realizes he is drowning, and cannot save himself! Yeshua is the one who is reaching out his hand to rescue the drowning man! Unless the man realizes he is in need of Yeshua, he won’t reach out to accept him. The Torah helps man to see his need for a Savior!
This year , Nitzavim/Vayelekh falls on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, but it is often read on Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat of Repentance, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). The themes of death and repentance occur in both these parashiyot and in the Days of Awe. Moses gathers the people to speak to them before his death, and in Deuteronomy 30, variations of the word shuv (“turn,” which has the same root as t’shuvah, “repentance”) appear seven times.
On Yom Kippur in particular, the theme of death in the liturgy often disturbs the modern worshiper. Traditional dress is a *kittel, which is also the garment used for burial. We recite the Vidui, confessional prayer, which is traditionally recited before death. In the Un’taneh Tokef [a prayer taken from the Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah liturgy], we read that God decides who will live and who will die: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” What can this mean? Are we to believe that our futures are predestined? Or that death is a punishment for wrongdoing, that those dear to us who passed away in the previous year had sinned and repented insufficiently?
In Nitzavim/Vayelekh, God tells Moses that he is about to die. Few of us ever receive such a warning. Beyond a sense of morbidity or a fear of punishment, why should we live with an awareness of our own inevitable death? B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun uv’Yom Kippur yeichateimun, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” In Hebrew, the word chatimah indicates both a seal and a signature. Each year, each day, whether we live or die, our actions and our words make an imprint on the world and the people around us. At my grandfather’s funeral, I was struck that people consistently said the same things about him. On Yom Kippur that year, the Un’taneh Tokef said to me that through his life, he left a distinct, enduring, and good impression behind.
The word that repeats and declares a theme in the end of Deuteronomy 30 is chayim, “life.” In verse 19 we read, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.” Some translations read, “so that you and your offspring may live.” Nechama Leibowitz points out the trouble inherent in that verse by quoting the Netziv, who writes in his book Ha’amek Davar, “How, is it conceivable to state: ‘Perform a certain action in order that the action come into being’? If the question facing us is whether to choose life or death, we cannot be advised to choose life in order to live.” She explains, “The means cannot be synonymous with the end” (Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in D’varim [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1993], p. 314). What life do we gain when we choose blessings over curses? How do our choices affect the lives of our offspring?
Perhaps this verse brings us back to the theme of mortality. Moses is facing his own death, and his message forces us to do the same. We learn that as a result of his actions, he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Even though God does not tell him he is going to die until chapter 31, immediately following his speech to the people, we get a glimpse of Moses’ own state of mind when he tells the people, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active [or, come and go]. Moreover, ADONAI has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What awareness does Moses have at that moment that he feels compelled to pass on to the people? It is the most important lesson of all: that our lives are fleeting, and that we are ultimately judged by the choices we make during our lives.
When we are aware of our own mortality, we are behooved to repent, that is, to return and review our choices and attitudes and to resolve to change them for the better. Our legacy, our immortality, whether or not we are sealed in the Book of Life, is determined not by the continuation or cessation of our physical existence, but by the impact we make, our unique and enduring signature which we leave in the minds and hearts of others.
The closing blessing is as follows:
atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,