In Vayeilech, the shortest portion in the Torah, Moses tells the people that he will not be leading them into the Land of Israel, per God's instruction; instead, Joshua will lead them (Deuteronomy 31:1-3). Then God informs Moses that he will soon die and that he should prepare Joshua to lead the people. Must he die before he will reach the goal that has absorbed his entire life! But only of God can it be said that God's work was finished.
By the time we reach a certain age, we know that we are mortal. We have lost grandparents. Later, we lose parents. And, still later, we lose peers. And yet we spend our days as if we were not mortal. We initiate projects, we form relationships even though all we cleave to we must hold very loosely. At some point we will learn that now it is our turn. When we are told that we may look over into the Promised Land but will not reach it, how do we live out our final days? So many of our days have been spent anticipating times to come. Do we know how to live in the present when we have been told we will not be part of the future?
From the beginning of Elul we have been preparing for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which, ritually, is a preparation for death. Some of us actually dress in the kitel that will be our shroud. We do not bathe or eat or engage in sex. What is this annual rehearsal of death really about?
The holy day of Yom Kippur is not about death, but about rebirth. We let die the many ways we have grown callous, been spiritually asleep. Then these twenty-five hours of intense introspection, repentance, and physical affliction bring about liberation, a fresh start, a year new not only in time, but also in the opportunity to start again.
We have, over the course of the past twelve months, gradually grown away from the ideal self who emerged after the last Yom Kippur. Those first few weeks after the High Holy Days had been so promising, but eventually the old bad habits reemerged. These old habits now seem even worse than they were the year before. We feel helpless to overcome them by ourselves. Gritting teeth, making forced promises seems to be inadequate. Judaism is the religion of freedom, but our imprisonment springs from us, our habits, our appetites. And now we reach Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and we look to the Torah portion to map our own transformation.
Three times in the portion we read, "Be strong and resolute" (Deuteronomy 31:6, 31:7, 31:23). And in verse 31:6 we read, "For it is indeed the Eternal your God who marches with you: [God] will not fail you or forsake you." By ourselves we cannot find rebirth. We imprison ourselves. We are tempted to accept our not-so-bad self. But the repeated verse gets our attention: "Be strong and resolute." And before we can once again protest our weakness we are assured, "It is . . . God who marches with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you." What has become clear to us over the course of the Ten Days of Repentance is that we can't do it alone. Whether we locate God in our most authentic core, in the interaction with the Jewish community, or in the chain of tradition that makes our personal trials part of the story of the Jewish people, we need to relate our struggle with our people's in order to cross over to the Promised Land.
But how is this portion supposed to guide and reassure us when Moses does not make it to the Promised Land? The line from Pirkei Avot 2:16 reminds us, "It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it" (trans. Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics [New York: UAHC Press, 1993], p. 30).
If we have understood our lives in terms of Torah, and Torah in terms of our lives, then we are ourselves a work in progress. We may not have reached completion, but that cannot keep us from the daily work of transforming ourselves.
Had Moses reached the stage of completion? There is no way we can know. We can only understand how Moses functioned for the Israelites. As long as he was around they were theChildren of Israel — not yet the full-grown, responsible people who would battle for the Promised Land. Moses rejoined the democracy of those who age and die — the mere mortals who inhabit our Torah — reminding us of what mere people can do in alliance with God.
Are we ready now for rebirth? "Be strong and resolute." Maybe this year can mark a new way of our being in the world. Maybe with the help of Torah, tradition, and community — maybe with the help of God — we can overcome the obstacles that have kept us from becoming our best selves. Maybe now we are ready to enter the Day of Atonement with the sense of hope and confidence that are the core of its message.
We read this short parashah on Shabbat Shuvah this year during the time that our liturgical tradition is most focused on t'shuvah. How can Parashat Vayeilech contribute to our understanding of and participation in this process of t'shuvah, a term most often translated as "repentance" or "turning." Hilchot T'shuvah Maimonides states:
Let not a penitent imagine to himself that he is distant from the level of the righteous because of the transgressions and sins he has done. It is not so; rather he is beloved and pleasing to the Creator as if he had never ever sinned. Moreover, his reward is greater, for he has tasted the taste of sin and withdrawn from it and overcome his evil urge. Our Sages said that in that place where penitents stand, the completely righteous are unable to stand [Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot]. That is, their level is higher than that of those who have never ever sinned, because they overcome their urge more than the latter.
In this week's parashah, Moses seems to have come to terms with the fact that his life will end before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. He does his best to prepare Joshua and the Israelites for an imminent leadership transition without expressing bitterness or resentment. In this moment, he doesn't rebuke the Israelites for their waywardness or lack of faith. He simply reassures them that God will remain with them no matter what mistakes they may make or transgressions they may commit. He also provides the Israelites with a set time to remind themselves of the understandings that he, Moses, comes to at the end of his life.
This picture of Moses is very different from the one we get of him earlier in his life — a Moses who clings to his authority despite his frustration and impatience with a people whom he sees as noncompliant and self-destructive. Moses almost appears to have re-created himself in this final chapter of his life, perhaps understanding that his own transgressions and mistakes actually have drawn him to a deeper and more profound understanding of God's relationship with him and with future generations of the Jewish people.
In his writings on Shabbat Shuvah, the S'fat Emet refers to those who truly seek forgiveness as m'chadshim, literally "renewers" or "re-creators." This concept addresses the potential pitfall of Maimonides' perspective — that we might justify our transgressions by claiming that sinning draws us closer to God and that t'shuvah is about resisting the urge to sin again. By defining true t'shuvah as a process of renewing oneself, the path toward God becomes a path of tikkun — of taking ourselves apart and putting ourselves back together to be different than before. Our parashah presents Moses as an example of one who remakes himself even in his last days, when his old self might have been jealous, judgmental, and self-pitying. Instead, through t'shuvah, the repentant, renewed Moses is open, accepting, and connected to God and community.
Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546–1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386–1,394;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250