“Don’t leave me” is one of the saddest and most humiliating things one can say. There’s nothing more miserable than being abandoned.
Moses explains that he is 120 years old and that he is leaving his post, for the time has come for him to die. He reassures the Israelites that they will not be cut loose, for not only will Joshua take over as leader, but God will continue to be with them and “He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut 31:6)
Bringing Joshua before the Children of Israel, Moses charges him to be strong and of good courage, and then once again ends with the assurance to Israel that God will remain with them and “He will not fail you or forsake you”. (Deut 31:8)
The repetition of the phrase “fail you or forsake you” – which is itself a tautology – deserves closer examination. The two terms here both suggest the idea of the loosening of ties of connection. The first phrase “lo yarpecha” comes from the root r-f-a which means to let go, drop, or release and is also associated with the idea of physical weakness. The second phrase “lo ya’azvecha” from a-z-v shares the same meanings but also gestures at desertion or abandonment. Here then, at a moment of transition and uncertainly when Moses – parent to the Children of Israel – speaks of leaving them and moving on, he also reassures them that what may feel like abandonment is not. For though he – Moses – is moving on, God will not fail or forsake them. In brief – it takes four mentions of desertion for Moses to point out that nobody is being deserted!
Something interesting happens just two verses later – another word with a very similar meaning makes its appearance! Moses commands the people regarding an event that will take place at the festival of Sukkot of the sabbatical year “shnat hashmita” (Deut 31:10). Sh-m-t also means loosening ties and letting go. Shmita is the sabbatical year when agricultural labour ceases, and debts are written off. So this is a different kind of loosening or letting go, a positive kind. Here notions of dropping, loosening, abandoning and detachment are seen as wholly positive, liberating in fact. It is deeply beneficial to society for people to stop the daily slog, and to write off outstanding debts. There are, it appears, ties that must be loosened and forms of obligation and relationships that must be undone for the greater good of humanity and the Earth.
We are all rattled by change, departure, and death. In the space of just a couple of sentences the Torah acknowledges that the loosening of ties is both terrifying, and entirely necessary for growth and renewal. For shmita is in fact only mentioned in passing and as the context for the mitzvah of Hakhel. “Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.” (Deut 31:12) says Moses.
Hakhel – gathering together to hear “this Torah” being read – is to take place every seven years. It is designated for a time when the Israelites are already in Jerusalem observing the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. At this period they have the leisure and the financial means to rest and recharge and equally importantly reconnect. Hakhel is not just a holiday, it’s a reaffirmation of shared peoplehood, a kind of renewal of vows that can only be celebrated when people have a little slack, at a time when people are free of economic obligations and the daily grind.
The Torah is extremely terse, and often uses one verbal root in a stunning variety of ways. Here we have the inverse situation: in the space of just a few verses the Torah employs three different verbs which all connote loosening. Just as there are many ways to connect and maintain connection, there are very many ways to let go. True, there is the absolute departure that is human death, but there are also beneficial aspects to the loosening of the ties that bind.
Zahavit Shalev LBC rabbinic student