"And Moses went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:1). This opening marks the beginning, not only of the parashah, but also of the long death scene for Moses that will not be completed until the very end of the Torah two portions hence. Traditional commentators noticed an unusual locution. Usually the Torah reads "And Moses spoke … " Only here does it say "And Moses went and spoke … "
This parashah is often combined in the Torah reading cycle with the prior parashah, Nitzavim, but whenever it appears alone, as it does this year, it is read on the Shabbat just before Yom Kippur. It is often read, therefore, with special kavanah or "spiritual intention" in relation to the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.
The ancient Rabbis were exquisite textual critics. In fact, some modern scholars such as Susan Handelman (who wrote the acclaimed, Slayers of Moses1), argue that modern literary theory was profoundly influenced by the wisdom of Rabbinic thought. Sometimes the Rabbis' observations seem fanciful at first glance, but the Rabbis were profoundly alert to aspects of the linguistic and literary nature of Torah from which deep and important lessons can be learned.
Vayeilech Moshe, "Moses went … " First they ask, "Where did he go?" Most answer that Moses went to each and every tribal encampment to convey his message personally to all the Israelites. Moses, at 120 years old and approaching his imminent death, nevertheless insisted on going to every tribal settlement in the large Israelite camp. What could possibly have been his message?
The great Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (d. 1167) suggested that his purpose in visiting every individual tribe was to assure them that his death would not leave the community leaderless, for Joshua would take over and be guided by God just as Moses was. In nondemocratic societies (and even sometimes in democratic societies!), the transfer of leadership is a time of great uncertainty, anxiety, and danger. It can be a period of destabilization and violence. So Moses went to each tribal group to assure them that the new leadership would continue to take the interests of all the people to heart (see Abraham ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 31:1).
Rabbi Joseph Teomim of Lemberg (d.1792) agrees that every aspect of a leader's job is to serve the people. He saw Moses as an example of the highest kind of tzaddik (righteous individual), whose labors are devoted not to personal aggrandizement in any form, but only to service. Even in his last hours, Moses went out of his home to each and every encampment in order to convey Torah to the entirety of Israel (No`am Megadim in Itturei Torah, Hebrew ed., vol. 5, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1995], p. 115).
One of the most interesting comments on this tiny textual irregularity is that of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz, who is known as the Kli Yakar for his popular Torah commentary by that name (d.1619). He was the chief rabbi of Prague. After becoming deathly ill at age 50, he vowed that if he survived his illness he would compose a commentary on the Torah. He completed it about a year after his recovery. Kli Yakar means "The Precious Object," a name that derives from a phrase from Proverbs, "Wise speech is a precious object" (Prov. 20:15). His comments here seem indeed precious as we approach Yom Kippur (see Sheldon Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation [Jerusalem: Gefen, 2012]).
Many people suffer from sickness of the soul, he says, but they do not see it in themselves so they cannot go to a wise healer to help them overcome their condition. They need someone to help them heal, someone who can speak to their heart and lead them to the introspection needed to overcome their weakness and unhappiness. "And Moses went" means that "he went from tent to tent to everyone among the Israelites, and he spoke 'these words' to his [or her] heart — that is, he spoke words of repentance … " to help them in their own journey to repentance (Commentary on Deut. 31:1).
He continues: "Or perhaps [Moses' 'going,' — vayeilech] is a matter of [seeking] shalom. For the sages [in Midrash Vayiqra Rabba 9:9] interpreted the verse 'Seek peace and pursue it' (Ps. 34:15) as meaning that peacemaking is unlike other commandments. For all the other commandments … one is obligated to perform them [only] when one encounters them, but one is not obligated to chase after them. Yet with regard to peacemaking, you must pursue it." We are not allowed simply to wait and hope that peace will occur. We are obligated to pursue it.
Luntschitz notes that the command to pursue peace applies both between people (bein adam l'chavero) and between people and God ( bein adam laMakom). One must pursue peace between people because the human condition is such that we don't easily admit guilt. We must strive to reconcile. If we don't work extremely hard at it, it will not happen. Admitting one's role in conflict is an act of t'shuvah, "repentance." According to the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b, "Great is repentance, for if even one individual [truly] accomplishes it, [the heavens] forgive the entire world, as it is said (Hosea 14:5), 'I will heal their affliction … for My anger has turned away from him.'" The Talmudic Sages noticed that the scriptural verse contains both plural and singular pronouns. The plural "their" in the verse refers to God healing the affliction of the entire world, while the singular "him" refers to the deep and true repentance of a single individual. One person fully admitting guilt turned God's anger away from him, which forgave the entire world.
So too, must one seek peace with God. This is also part of the commandment, says Luntschitz, based on Isaiah 57:19: "Peace: peace to the one who is far and to the one who is near, said the Eternal." As we enter the space of Yom Kippur, he says, it behooves us to consider this observation. One needs to pursue peace between oneself and one's God just as one needs to pursue peace between oneself and one's fellow. That is what is meant by the unique wording, "Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel." He went after them — he pursued them — to arouse them to make peace between themselves, and between themselves and God. Both are included in "And Moses went and spoke these words … " Spoke which words? The words spoken, says Luntschitz, are words of t'shuvah directed both toward God and toward one's fellow. For both of these are referred to by Hosea (14:3) when he said, "Take with you words and return to the Eternal."
The Hebrew word for "return" is shuvu, the same word from which comes the word t'shuvah, "repentance." Luntschitz thus reads the text as imploring, "Be like Moses. Take with you words of peace to reconcile with your fellow. Pursue peace, for that will also bring reconciliation with the Eternal, which is the goal of repentance of Yom Kippur. And we might add, reconciliation with the Eternal means reconciliation with the self and the Eternal spark that is in us, and enlightens us to the possibilities of compassionate repentance.
1. Susan A. Handelman, Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany, NY: SUNY Press , 1983)
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He regularly teaches Jewish Bible commentaries to rabbinical students.