TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Vayelekh

Torah Sparks
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TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Vayelekh Shabbat Shuvah October 5, 2019 | 6 Tishrei 5780
Annual (Deuteronomy 31:1-30): Etz Hayim p. 1173-1179; Hertz p. 887-891
Triennial (Deuteronomy 31:1-30): Etz Hayim p. 1173-1179; Hertz p. 887-891
Haftarah (Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20): Etz Hayim p. 1135; Hertz p. 891

D’var Torah: The Transfer of Power
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The whole of Sefer Devarim is the final communication of a departing leader to his people. And although Moshe is the “humblest of men” we see him struggling to make peace with it all - his successes and failures, his anxiety about the future, his inability to see things through to the end, and perhaps even his own mortality. We don’t get to see everything he went through, but elsewhere in Devarim we get glimpses of various early stages of grief such as anger (Devarim 1:34-38) and bargaining (3:23-25). Although each time God tells Moshe, “You shall not go across the Jordan,” he also says “Yehoshua is the one who shall cross before you” (31:5), through most of Devarim Moshe seems to focus solely on the first part. He assumes an even more prominent position, delivering long lectures to teach, scold, and encourage his flock.

But in our parashah this week, Parshat Vayelekh, Moshe seems to have arrived at the fifth stage of grief - acceptance - as he finally turns his attention to Yehoshua. With God’s prompting Moshe passes the torch and offers some mild words of encouragement: “Then Moshe called Yehoshua and said to him in the sight of all of Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with the people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who will apportion it to them…’” (31:7)

But is this really enough for Yehoshua to be successful? Although Yeshohua had been close to Moshe for many years, it was as his attendant and assistant, not his disciple or understudy! They both must have felt the enormous gap there was - not only in their experience and wisdom but in their standing with the people. Imagine a personal assistant being appointed the new CEO! Sensing this, Sifre Devarim, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah, adds new details to the story:

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied to Moshe, saying, “Give Yehoshua a spokesman, and let him question, respond, and give instructions while you are still living, so that when you depart from this world, Israel might not say to him, ''During your master's lifetime you did not speak out, and now you do!?'" Some say that Moshe lifted Yehoshua up from the ground, and placed him between his knees (stood him on a stool), so that Moshe and Israel had to raise their heads in order to hear Yehoshua's words. What did Yehoshua say? "Blessed be the Lord who has given the Torah to Israel at the hands of our master Moshe"— those were Yehoshua's words. (Siman 305, Finkelstein ed. p. 324)

Knowing their capacity for disobedience, it is not enough for Moshe just to say that Yehoshua will succeed him. So God has Moshe set Yehoshua up for success in two ways: first, by showing that Yehoshua is his own person with his own thoughts and capabilities, and second, by showing that he ascends to leadership with Moshe’s blessing and not as some kind of usurper. How often do we see leaders, unable or unwilling to cede power, do the opposite - belittling any potential successor or casting suspicion upon them?

Why is it so hard for leaders to transfer power gracefully? Surely Moshe knew he would not live forever and that for his life’s work to outlive him, someone else would need to assume the mantle of responsibility. Perhaps the same “ego” that makes it hard for leaders to step aside is what made them step up in the first place. Leaders often are, and may need to be motivated by the idea that nobody else can or will do what must be done.

But even if a leader is essential at the beginning, the best leaders make themselves less and less necessary. In Egypt, Moshe was indeed alone. When he struck and killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Shemot 2:12), he “looked this way and that” before realizing he was the only one who could or would act. What keeps Moshe’s death from being a tragedy is knowing that he is, finally, not alone. He has prepared Yehoshua and his people to honor his teaching and carry it forward.

Parashat Vayelekh Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This very short parashah is part of the last acts of Moshe as he hands over the leadership to Yehoshua prior to his death.

  1. Moshe goes to the people and tells them that he is 120 years old today (31:1-2). What relevance do you think that his exact age has to statement that he will not lead them into the land, God and Yehoshua will do that?
  2. In his instructions regarding entering the land, Moshe first encourages the people ‘be strong…fear not…’ (31:3-6) and only after that he encourages Yehoshua in front of all the people. Why does he speak to the people before bringing Yehoshua before them?
  3. After 7 years, at the time of the Sabbatical year (Shmita), on Succot when everyone comes for the pilgrimage, the Kohanim are commanded to gather everyone and read the Torah for them. Why was this timing chosen?
  4. Moshe is warned by God that in the future, after arriving in the land, the people will turn to other gods because they will ‘eat and be satiated and turn fat’ (31:20). Why is that the likely state in which the nation will turn away from God?
  5. Before dying, Moshe will recite a poem to the people as a warning against leaving God. Why do you think that the warning is set in the form of a poem?

D’var Haftarah: Compensating
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It takes its name from the opening words of its haftarah – “Shuva Yisrael – Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your sin” (14:2) The message of this passage, and for that matter the whole haftarah, is that it is imperative to mend one’s ways in order to reestablish a relationship with God.

We might say that this is easier said than done and this is readily acknowledged by the rabbinic sages. In a midrash from the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, a midrashic work from the period of the Talmud, the sages review a variety of Jewish strategies for making amends with God before choosing one: “They asked wisdom: ‘What is the punishment for the sinner?’ Wisdom responded to them: ‘Evil which pursues the sinner’ (Proverbs 13:21) [namely, punishment]; They asked prophecy: ‘What is the punishment for the sinner?’ She replied: ‘The person who sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:4) They asked the Torah: ‘What is the punishment for the sinner?’ She replied to them: ‘He should bring a sin offering and it will atone for him.’ They asked the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘What is the punishment for the sinner?’ He said to them: ‘He should do teshuva (the act of returning) and he will be atoned for, as it is written: ‘At the same time, good and upright is the Lord, therefore He shows sinners the way.’ (Psalms 25:8) Said Rabbi Pinhas: ‘What does it mean that he is both good and upright, and upright and good? For He (God) shows sinners the way to repent’; that is why it says: ‘Return, O Israel to the Lord your God’” (24:7 Mandelbaum ed. p. 355)

In this midrash, wisdom, prophecy, Torah, and God are asked how a sinner can come clean. The first three offer mechanical strategies: punishment, death, a sacrifice. Each of them is a means of compensating for the wrong deed – paying a price so the sin is expiated for. God rejects all of the seemingly conventional answers in favor of changing or reforming the sinner so that the sinner can be reconciled with God. While we all know about this idea of “teshuva”, this midrash presents it as something radically different from conventional wisdom. In fact, to this day it is a radical idea. How can a person fix the wrong that they have done? Punishment, death, payment? While all or any of these may have their place, God’s preferred answer is that we fix ourselves to make things good again.

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