In our High Holiday machzor, we read a poem entitled, “The Sacred Pilgrimage,” by Rabbi Alvin Fine:
Birth is a beginning
and death a destination.
But life is a journey:
from childhood to maturity
and youth to age;
from innocence to awareness
and ignorance to knowing;
from foolishness to discretion
and then, perhaps to wisdom;
from weakness to strength
or strength to weakness—
and often, back again…
from defeat to defeat to defeat—
until, looking backward or ahead
we see that victory lies
not at some high place along the way,
but in having made the journey, stage by stage,
a sacred pilgrimage.
(excerpted from Mishkan HaNefesh: Rosh HaShanah: Machzor for the Days of Awe [NY:CCAR Press, 2015], p. 86)
The familiar verses of this poem could easily be the underlying emotional narrative of Parashat Vayeilech. Often used at Yizkor and other services of memory, these words conjure a reckoning of a life’s purpose. In this week’s portion, Moses is in the midst of this process; for in Parashat Vayeilech, Moses officially retires and begins to prepare for his death.
Moses begins the portion with a strong statement of impending transition:
“I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Eternal has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’ ” (Deut. 31:2)
The Hebrew, however, is slightly more cryptic. Rather than the clear, “I can no longer be active,” the Hebrew literally reads, lo uchal od latzeit v’lavo, “I am no longer able to go out and to come.” What does this phrase actually mean? We find this phrase in this context in several other places throughout the Hebrew Bible:
- Moses and Joshua: “Moses spoke to the Eternal, saying, ‘Let the Eternal One, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’ ” (Num. 27:15-17)
- David: “All Israel and Judah loved David, for he marched at their head (lit.: “he went out and came in before them”).” (I Samuel 18:16)
- Solomon: “And now, Adonai my God, You have made Your servant king in place of my father David; but I am a young lad, with no experience in leadership (lit.: “I do not know goings and comings”).” (I Kings 3:7)
In examining these instances of our phrase, we discover that these words are almost always an idiom or metaphor for leadership. Moses is not merely making a passing reference to his advanced age and decreased ability; he is also hinting that he is no longer the appropriate leader for the Israelites. In reflecting upon his long and enduring task, what might Moses, with his new perspective, be implying about leadership by using those active verbs?
The rabbinic commentaries seize upon this phrase to ask and examine, what does leadership entail?
For some commentators, “to go and to come” recognizes a practical, physical dimension to leadership. As Ibn Ezra notes in his commentary to Deuteronomy 31:2:
“To go to and fro denotes going out to, and returning from, battle. In other words: ‘Even if I were not now going to die, still I am incapable of waging war. Thus, you have no need of someone who would leave you unattended.’ ” Moses understands that in some instances, leadership involves actually using our bodies to inspire, demonstrate, and protect those in our community.
In an exposition of Deuteronomy 31:2, the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that this phrase suggests a loss of intellectual capacity. In Sotah 13b, we read:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: ‘The verse means that he could no longer go out and come in with words of Torah. This teaches that the gates of wisdom were closed off to him.’ ”
Through this meaning, Moses reminds us that leadership requires deep and profound knowledge, and a shared language of values and experiences.
Several commentaries link the idea of “going out and coming in” to an innate sense of interpersonal understanding, a unique perception of how to connect with other people. In his commentary on Numbers 27:17, Rashi emphasizes this idea by illuminating the power of presence:
“Who shall go out before them and come in before them — not as is the way of the kings of the nations who sit at home and send their armies to battle, but as ‘I’ have done … and so, too, in the case of David, it says, (I Samuel 18:16) ‘For he went out and came in before them’ — went out at their head, and came in at their head (Sifrei Bamidbar 139:2).”
Rashi highlights that our phrase — go out and come in — indicates that the leader is actually standing with the people through their trials and tribulations. More than just the physical strength alluded to earlier, this explanation calls attention to the idea that the leader did not detach from the people, but rather stayed with them through their experiences.
Finally, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, in a passing comment on Numbers 27:17, suggests that the phrase “going out and coming in” denotes the notion of leadership by example:
“Rabbi Reuben said: The entire body follows the head, and when the shepherd goes astray the sheep go astray after him … When the shepherd is good, all follow after him.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42:11)
Here, we interpret our phrase as a recognition of the responsibility that comes along with leadership. Surely, Moses acutely feels this dimension of his leadership: he understands how much his own life has been dictated and defined by the need to be with — and understand the needs of — the people.
As we begin to aggregate the meanings and understand the totality of Moses’ phrase — to go and to come — it becomes clear that the very use of the idiom itself is Moses’ last brave act as a wise leader and teacher. For here, Moses reveals one of the most important aspects of leadership — self-awareness. Moses’ use of these words, and their multilayered meaning, displays an arc of maturity achieved in the span of the Book of Deuteronomy alone, from the personal pleading of Va-et’chanan — “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25) — to the assurance and acceptance of Vayeilech. In sharing his own journey, his own sacred pilgrimage to ultimate understanding, Moses also reminds us of the wisdom we learn from Psalm 121, verse 8, “Adonai will guard your going and coming now and forever.” While we each have a sacred purpose, only God’s leadership is eternal.