VaYelech: What Will Keep Us Close to Gd After Moshe Rabbenu Is Gone?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

End of Moshe’s Time/Transition to Yehoshu’a’s Time

This third-to-last parsha in the Torah starts with Moshe Rabbenu, 31;2, telling the Jewish people he can no longer lead them, being 120 that day. Rashi waves off the easiest reading, he was too old, because the end of the Torah, 34;7, says his strength had not waned when he passed away. Rather, Gd had withdrawn permission for Moshe to lead, given it to Yehoshu’a. Or, Rashi says, Moshe was saying his abilities in Torah study had been taken from him, the wellsprings of wisdom now closed.

Ramban thinks both of Rashi’s ideas were as means of comfort. Although age was not the issue, it comforted the people to think it was his age, because they preferred that idea to being forced to realize sin sin sometimes brings inescapable consequences.

[A remarkable insight: we do not want to think a way we acted in the past, which we have fully repented and set aside, might leave lasting damage, might narrow our horizons in ways we cannot restore. To know Moshe was not going into Israel with them because of the incident of the rock—Moshe!—taught a lesson too hard for them. Easier to think he had just gotten old, although of course they could see with their own eyes he wasn’t aged.

Just this Shabbat, I heard a shiur about the rule prohibiting a kohen who killed someone else from saying birchat kohanim, according to Rambam and Shulhan Aruch even if he has repented, even if the original killing was unwitting. Same idea.]

Rashi’s second idea, from Sotah 13b, seems to Ramban to have been Gd’s way of easing Moshe into his leaving, that he no longer could think well in Torah, helping him also see it was time for Yehoshu’a to take over.

A Disciple’s Continuity and Inauguration

Rashi thinks Yehoshu’a’s accession was not a complete break from what came before. When Moshe expresses his certainty the people will stray from Gd after he passes away, 31;29 Rashi wonders at the seeming contradiction with Yehoshu’a 24;31, which says the people served Gd all the days of Yehoshu’a.

To resolve it, he says a man’s disciple is as dear as his own body, so all of Yehoshu’a’s life, Moshe was sort of still alive. He may be leaving the scene, but with Yehoshu’a there, it is almost like he is still there.

Gd tells Moshe to bring Yehoshu’a to the Tent of Meeting, 31;14, where Gd appears in a pillar of cloud, for reasons we are not told. Rashi suggested it was to command and/or encourage Yehoshu’a in proper leadership attitudes. Ramban objects that a later verse, 31;23, has Gd explicitly do that, command Yehoshu’a hazak ve-ematz, be strong and of good courage. He instead assumes Gd arranged this encounter for Yehoshu’a to witness his teacher’s interaction with Gd (as support, Ramban points out Moshe could have entered the Tent; they stayed outside to accommodate Yehoshu’a’s limitations).

He was also included in the writing of the first Torah scroll, to put him into better position to replace his teacher. 31;19 switches between the plural and singular, says in plural to write this Song (more on that in a bit), in the singular to teach it to the people. Ramban thinks Yehoshu’a was supposed to be part of the writing, hearing it as Moshe heard it, see Moshe write it, and then read it as it became part of the Torah. It would mean Yehoshu’a was a functioning prophet still during Moshe’s lifetime, prepares him for his road ahead.

At the end of Ha’azinu, 32;44, the Torah says Yehoshu’a was part of presenting Ha’azinu to the people, although Ramban still thinks Moshe did the bulk of the teaching.

A final bit on Yehoshu’a, Moshe tells him he will tavo et ha-am, enter the Land of Israel with the nation, 31;7, where Gd says tavi, will bring, 31;23. Rashi infers a more coercive sense to the second verse, Gd was alerting Yehoshu’a to the need to (sometimes) force the people to do what he told them, with physical power (or other kinds).

As Moshe reaches the end of his life, we see it is not quite over when he physically leaves, because Yehoshu’a continues his role and influence, having been prepared to do so during his teacher’s life, by seeing his teacher’s prophetic experience, participating somewhat in the writing and teaching of Ha’azinu, becoming ready for the leadership of partnership as well as the leadership of imposed authority.

Hakhel

One of the final building blocks of Jewish society in Israel will be the Hakhel ceremony, on the Sukkot after every shemittah year (a year from this Sukkot, in other words; for decades now, the Chief Rabbinate has a beautiful ceremony in commemoration of Hakhel; as Rosh HaShanah approaches, we can hope and pray this year’s gezar din, Divine decree, includes a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash and restored monarchy, in enough time to have a Biblical Hakhel next Sukkot. Ken yehi ratzon). The Jewish people will gather in Jerusalem, to read the Torah together, remind themselves as a nation of their goals, values, the way of life they need to adopt to be successful.

Rashi to 31;11 says it was the king who would do the Torah reading, a reminder the Jewish State did not have a complete separation of powers, the king had religious functions as well, despite his not being the supreme religious authority (that was the Sanhedrin, other than at the Mikdash, where the Kohen Gadol had a share). The Jewish people as a political entity was to be also invested in Torah observance, because it was crucial to their political/national success, just as much as their “religious” success (Rambam thinks it is part of the king’s function to bring the nation to better observance of the Torah).

Ramban notices 31;12 says to gather men, women, and children, where he is certain the latter two populations would not gain much in specific content from hearing the Torah read aloud (I think because they were assumed not to be well versed enough in Torah for an oral recitation to hit home with them). He thinks women absorbed fear/awe/reverence of Gd from being there, where the children will be stimulated to ask questions after the event, sparking their further education.

To me, this serves as an important reminder education is about more than the content, even some who cannot take anything away content-wise nonetheless benefit from being there. [And vice-verse, those who learn the content need to do it in the framework of yir’ah, although Ramban does not stop to notice that, I think because it was so obvious to him.]

The Straying To Come

God bases the need for Ha’azinu – the part of the Torah we said Yehoshu’a would participate in writing and teaching–on the expectation Jews would be seduced by worship of other powers after Moshe’s passing. In 31;16, Gd refers to those powers as elohei nechar ha-aretz, the foreign gods of the land. Rashi thinks the foreignness is the people [who will be nechar, foreign, once the Jews have conquered it, I think he means]. Ramban sees it more metaphysically, because Gd’s Providence extends more directly to the Land of Israel than other places, these other powers are more “foreign” than they would be elsewhere.

For Ramban, the Jews’ turn to alien worship will be more of a betrayal in Israel then anywhere else in the world.

Later in the verse, Gd says va-azavani, they will leave Me, next verse says va-azavtim, I will leave them. Although they seem the exact flip of each other, Onkelos made the Jewish people the actors in each. “They will leave Me” he interprets as vi-shavmun dahalti, they will relinquish fear of Me, and for va-azavtim writes ve-arhekinon, I will make them distant, where it again happens to them.

There is no surprise in Onkelos adjusting the translation to avoid change in Gd. He goes a step further here in making the first one about the Jews’ fear of Gd, a matter of religiosity, and the second one about their distance, which can be either spiritual or physical. Here, it seems to be physical, because Onkelos takes the references in 31;17 and 18 to Gd “hiding His Face” to be a removal of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.

The consequence of abandoning fear of Gd is distance from Gd, at least spiritual and then physical, with exile.

The Antidote/Guide Back

After predicting the sad course of Jewish history we have seen, the Jewish people straying from Gd, being exiled, suffering many punishments, Gd tells Moshe to write the shirah of Ha’azinu, to serve as testimony, to show the Jewish people where they went wrong and the road back. Onkelos translates shirah, song, as tushbahta, praise, a word more obviously apt for the Song after Gd split the Sea.

This “song” isn’t as obviously a mode of praise of Gd. Perhaps an answer comes when Onkelos translates va-yidom AharonVayikra 10;3, with a version of shavah as well. Aharon was silent after Gd killed Nadav and Avihu for their sin, and Onkelos calls it praise! I suggest Onkelos is expanding our sense of what qualifies as praise; silence in the face of Gd’s painful actions is a praise, as Tehillim 65;2 tells us (and Rashi points out in Vayikra); so, too, perhaps articulating Gd’s rule of the world, Gd’s giving reward and punishment for those who act well or poorly, Gd’s power over all the nations, counts as praise. Facts, but acknowledging facts about Gd that others stubbornly deny is itself a kind of praise.

Ramban suggests it was called a song because it was meant to be sung, a way to remember it better (as 31;21 promises, ki lo tishachah mi-pi zar’o, it will not be forgotten from its [the nation’s] descendants. Another mechanism for not forgetting is the obligation to write it, the source of the obligation on every Jewish man to write a sefer Torah (an obligation Rosh and other held might transfer to books of Torah learning rather than the technical scroll).

Moshe Rabbenu’s time with the Jewish people is nearing its end. He is being told to set Yehoshu’a up to continue his legacy, and the Hakhel ceremony to help hold the Jewish people close to Gd. After which looms the (eventually realized) danger the Jews will stray, Ha’azinu always there to remind us how the world works, show us the way back to success.

Since I’m sending this out before Rosh HaShanah, I can add the prayer we all take advantage of the Yom Ha-Din to take the steps we need back to, or further along, the road of success in service of Gd. Ketivah ve-hatimah tovah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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