Thursday, 03 Oct 2019

Written by Peter Luijendijk

This week we’ll be reading from Parashat Vayeilech, which means; “and he went, or, when he went”. Parashat Vayeilech is the fifty second parashah, and at the moment of writing this – a mere few days before Rosh Hashanah, the fact that I am writing about the fifty second portion within our annual cycle of Torah reading, bears extra importance.

It is needless to say that our current calendar has fifty two weeks, as the Jewish year comes to a close, we are getting ready to assess our year and try to come to terms with all the wonderful things that happened to us and all the hardships that befell us.

It is almost prophetic; that the opening lines of this week’s reading depicts an elderly Moses of one hundred and twenty years old, opening up to the community his vulnerability, his anxieties and indeed his fears of passing on his vision and his leadership to a new generation. Moses’ vulnerability is immediately expressed in the very opening verses of our Parashah: “I am a hundred and twenty years old today, I can no longer set forth and come [with you], for Adonai told me “you shall not cross the Jordan [river]””. Moses continues by encouraging the people of Israel to be courageous and strong and to trust in their new leaders – he affirms, once again, the role of the Levite tribe as the ones in charge of God’s holy vessels and the holy rituals around them.

Moses’s encouragement feels ambiguous in a way. Even though he is addressing all the people of Israel, it almost feels as if he is speaking to himself at the same time. It is almost as if he is pleading to himself that it is okay to let go, that it is okay to leave the new generation to carry on and to discover their new land without him. Maybe there is even a hint of regret. A shimmer of sadness perhaps, for the fact that he can’t see the fulfilment of God’s promise himself. In a way, these words may be read as a process of coming to terms with events that are inevitable and emotions for which there is no resolution.

Moses’ anxieties are immediately confirmed by God who instructs Moses to teach the children of Israel a song, a very particular song – a song that teaches them; that when they transgress the commandments of Adonai their God, He will turn his mercy away from them.

In our preparation towards Yom Kippur – our day of atonement – the words of this song might be perceived by us as particularly harsh. We all make mistakes! Most of these mistakes are made unwillingly for, and I am sure of this, we all strive to be good human beings. Unfortunately, sometimes, we find ourselves saying the wrong things, interpreting words of others in the wrong way and sometimes we mistake a period of silence by our friend, colleague, boss or family member for an act of animosity towards us.

We, then, may ask ourselves: “why would God in these instances turn his back on us?” If God is turning his back on us, then how about those individuals we wronged unintentionally? Just like Moses, we may advise our friends on the hardships of life and human interaction. We may advise them, just like Moses did here in this Parashah, from a place of hurt and knowing that we may have lost meaningful connections and friendships ourselves. We may also advise our friends, because we know ourselves, that no matter how much and how often we try genuinely and wholeheartedly to be good and just towards others – we inevitably will make mistakes. Just like Moses foretold; even our best friend, the person we love the most (yes, even God) may come to a point that He, that they, are in a place wherein they cannot forgive us – we always have ourselves to return to.

The place which is called “ourselves” can be a happy place and, God willing, it is a happy place. Reality, on the other hand, teaches us that for others the place we call happy is unattainable as is the location of the Holy of Holies of our historic sanctuary in the old city of Jerusalem. What warms my heart, what inspires me and what thrusts me forward, is the realisation that this commonality is shared cross denominationally Judaism wide! For those who observe prayers daily, and for others who observe prayers infrequently, pray towards this unknown – they aspire to uncover the mystery! For some this mystery is the location of the Holy Temple, for others this is the mystery of the divine presence and yet for a lot of us – it is the location where we find “ourselves”, the place where creation begins!

The Hebrew verb “To pray” – l’hitpallel – is a reflective one. It is derived, some believe, from a concept of contemplation, expectation or believe.[1] To pray is reflective! Whilst we pray, we turn to ourselves before we address anyone or anything else.

In the case of our Parashah, the added meaning might involve to speak through others to oneself. By speaking to, teaching or advising others – we might teach ourselves a lesson or give ourselves advice. Moses’ reassurance of the People of Israel could be read as a self-reassurance, whilst knowing at the same time that no-one can control all the outcomes. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody will keep making mistakes. Sometimes, making mistakes will mean that we have to say goodbye to relationships; whether they be collegial, friendly or romantic. This is the harsh reality of life, the harsh reality of “going”.

“Vayeilech” – and he went. We are all on the move! Every single one of us is continuously moving. Within these ten days we are moving to another year with the realisation that growing up, that moving forward, is hard. It will always

be hard but know that it is hard for everyone. These awesome days, these yamim noraim, are not meant to be or feel comfortable. The comforting aspect is, however, that we are together as a community.

There is one spark of hope in our Parashah: “Be strong and courageous […], I shall be with you”.[2] This is a kind of “love conquers all”-statement. Yes, we may find hardship, yes, not all apologies may be accepted – but love conquers all. The Hebrew is “hazak ve’emats”. And this phrase resonates throughout Jewish tradition. Not only does it find a parallel in Psalms: “Trust in God, be strong and strengthen your heart, and trust in God”.[3] A similar encouragement also resonates from our custom when we finish a book of Torah: “Hazak! Hazak! V’nithazek!” – Be strong! Be strong! And we will be empowered. Needless to say: this imperative to march on is not meant as a cure – needless to say that those who can’t march on, aren’t left to fend for themselves. These statements are directed to us as a community! Moses spoke from a place of weakness. By expressing his weakness, he may not have necessarily found his resolve, but he did find a way to reflect on it. By doing so, he allows us to reflect on it as well, so we may learn from it and, God willing, find strength in it. Perhaps these: “be-strong-phrases” – are not “be-strong-phrases” at all! Perhaps their idiomatic application got lost in our modern understanding of subsequent languages. Perhaps these idiomatic phrases suggest a vocative meaning: “May we find strength in it”.

May we find encouragement in these days to be vulnerable and at one with ourselves. May we find the strength to delve within the depths of our being. May we find an opportunity to understand ourselves together with our communities.

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah! – A good, sweet and meaningful year!

Peter Luijendijk LBC rabbinic student


[1] Even Shoshan dictionary[ [6 vols.] (Israel 2003) [Hebrew].

[2] Deutronomy 31: 23.

[3] Psalms 27:14.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.