Hebraic Studies - Parashat Vayelech

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Parashat Vayelech

Davarim Deuteronomy Chapter 31


With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

This Parashat is the one that comes between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of a few Shabbas each year that have a special name. This will be Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return, named for the first word of the special haphtarah, reading from the prophets. The Sabbath’s with special names each have their own character. This one is a part of the season of reflection and repentance, and traditionally would be a moment for rabbis to give one of their most thoughtful and thought provoking sermons of the year. The word and the melodies of this Shabbat’s prayer services are modified for the High Holy Day Season, and people will greet each other, as they do throughout the days between the two holidays, with the traditional greeting,  - “G’mar Tovor “Chatimah Tovah wishing that you be sealed for “A good year in the book of life’”.

Along with this greeting, many of us wish each other “an easy fast”. This greeting, while kind and thoughtful, has often struck me as a little odd. I would never wish a difficult fast on anyone, but I always wonder if an easy fast kind of misses the point. If it was supposed to be easy, would we really be fasting at all? The mitzvah to fast is given in Leviticus 16 where we are told

“Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement, ‘there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls’” Vayikra – Leviticus 16:27 (JPS - Jewish Publication Society version of the Torah).

The words “Afflict your souls - V’ini’tem et Naf’sho’tei’chem - can be translated as “you shall afflict your souls, deprive yourselves and practice self denial”. But, the truth is Yom Kippur is not a sad fast day as most of the other fast days on our Jewish calendar are. We are not fasting in mourning. Yom Kippur is also known as the ‘white fast’, and is a day of hope, and in many traditions it is one of outright joy. When we fast on Yom Kippur, it is in service of allowing ourselves to focus on the spiritual work that needs to be done, not to be distracted from that work by the joy of the Yom Tov that eating would normally demand.

The transition we make on Yom Kippur from the old year into the new beautifully mixes the emotions of joy, awe, regret, resolve, fear and hope. Like life itself, Yom Kippur does not allow us to compartmentalize the pleasant from the difficult. It comes all at once.

The Parsha read on Shabbat ShuvahVayelech’ mixes these emotions as well. Moshe goes out to the people, to tell them that he has reached the end of his one-hundred and twenty year lifespan, and is passing the mantle of leadership to Yahushua - Joshua. He reminds that Elohim, blessed be He, will be with them, both ahead of them as they forge ahead into the new land and among them in their camp. Moshe urges the people and Yahushua - Joshua to be strong and courageous and not to fear on this next part of their journey.

“And Moshe called unto Yahushua, and said unto him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt go with this people into the land which hath sworn unto their fathers to give them and thou shalt cause them to inherit it. And , He it is that doth go before thee; He will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee; fear not, neither be dismayed” Devarim - Deuteronomy 31:7-8 (JPS).

These words resound through history and into our own time - - “Chazak V’ematz - “Be strong and of good courage”. We hear them added on to the charge we give B’nei Mitzvah as we call them up for their Aliyah.

Traditional commentaries wonder at the first word of this Parsha, why are we told that Moshe went and told the people “Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be affrighted at them” verse 6. Why is going to them important? Some explain that Moshe is trying to allay the people’s fear of the transition. There are some who feel it was much like a gracious guest making sure to say goodbye to their host before taking leave, thus also Moshe was personally taking leave of his people. Of course the very opening word in Ivrit of this chapter Vayelech followed by Moshe’s name, indicates that he was bringing this message to the people of his own accord, and he was doing this very much to ease the transition because what was about to happen. He saw the moment of their fulfilling the covenant by entering Eretz Yisrael as a great joy, and he worried that it would be somehow diminished by the their sorrow at his death. Thus Moshe ensured that the people’s mind would be at ease and he went out of his way to encourage them to feel at ease and be ready to feel the joy as they entered “the Land of Milk and Honey”!

The truth is life is like that, for we do not get our joy and our grief’s in perfectly arranged little boxes. We cannot easily separate the emotions that come in our complicated lives. Although, I really cannot imagine that Moshe thought his personal farewell to the people would make his loss any easier for them. But, knowing of the powerful moment of joy and accomplishment that was coming, maybe he hoped that he could make his passing and their entry into the Promised Land meaningful, shifting the focus more to the joy rather than the sorrow.

So, too, it is with the awesome, powerful, heart-breaking and the heart-lifting High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.

Our practice of self-reflection and self-denial, be it with us fasting etc, should be neither difficult, nor easy. It should help us draw our attention to what will make this very special day meaningful and Elohim willing transformative, thus being able to change for the better!

Wishing you and your loved ones a meaningful Yom Kippur and a …

- G’mar Chatimah Tovah.


Always remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.


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