Vayelech Shabbat Shuva
By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, Sept 11, 2021
The reading of Parshat Vayelech on Shabbat Shuva, and a haftorah that comes from three different books of Neviim, are both rather rare events.
So, why this parsha, and this haftorah on this Shabbat? In one word: transitions. In Hebrew, a transition is a ma’avar, the plural: ma’ava’reem. Keep that tucked away for now.
One obvious transition is that on Shabbat Shuva, we are at the middle of the Aseret Yamei Tshuva, a 10 day period of Repentance and Judgment.
The Haftorah reinforces this theme of Tshuva, pointing out that moving away from God is actually expected, but God, we are reassured, waits for us to return, to transition or “pivot” in a new direction.
Finally, Parashat Vayelech is also about transitions- an imminent move into the Promised Land, and a change in leadership.
These transitions, like those we all experience, bring out mixed thoughts and emotions.
In this week’s short parsha, Moshe or God tell the people five times that Moshe’s term of office is up. While this may be a transition for the people, for Moshe… it’s the Final Transition.
If you look at the top layer, the peshat of the parsha, however, Moshe seems stoic or resigned: there is no emotion; no praying, no pleading for more time or a different outcome.
Sitting here on Shabbat Shuva, Moshe’s lack of response seems strange. So let me introduce you to Midrash Petirat Moshe, a medieval collection of imagined conversations, in which Moshe repeatedly asks for more time to live, and God repeatedly refuses. Here’s one encounter from the end of the collection:
Moshe says to God, “Master of the universe, shall these feet that went up to the heavens, this face that confronted the Shechina, these hands that received the Torah from Your hand–shall these now lick dust?”
God replies: “Such must be the way of the world: each generation is to have its own interpreters of Torah, its own leaders.”
So Moshe asks to spend his last remaining hours serving as Yehoshua’s disciple. When the People see Moshe at Yehoshua’s tent, they ask him to teach them Torah. But Moshe says, “I no longer have the authority.”
Playing off our reading today, when Moshe and Yehoshua later enter the Tent of Meeting, the pillar of cloud comes down and forms a partition between them. After the cloud departs, Moshe asks Yehoshua, “What did God say to you?” Yehoshua replies, “When God used to reveal Himself to you, did I know what He said to you?” In that instant, Moshe cries out in anguish and says, “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.”
This Midrash imagines a more complex Moshe than we see in our parsha. Moshe of the Midrash wasn’t at all happy with God’s decision. He thought he deserved more time. But during the little bit of time he had left, Moshe saw that his new life was too hard to imagine, too hard to bear.
I think we can reconcile the two Moshe’s with the commentaries of Seforno, ibn Ezra, and a little Torah trope.
Our parsha begins with the words
וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
“Moshe went and spoke these words to all of the Israelites.”
The commentator Seforno translates “vayelech” as “hitor’er” – Moshe “woke up” or “came to truly understand” his situation….
And then, and only then…
ַ וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה
“He said these words.”
So Moshe came to terms with his new status, moved beyond whatever anger or resentments he had. He realized what he had to do, and then he went to talk to the people. Not just the people, but “kol Yisrael,” all the people.
The word וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר (va’yidaber) has that great Torah trope called a tevir….it elongates the word. The elongated word could indicate that Moshe did a lot of speaking. Also, the notes go down, then end higher. This might explain this next comment of Ibn Ezra:
הלך אל כל שבט ושבט להודיע שהוא מת שלא יפחדו
He didn’t just speak to the group as a whole, Kol Yisrael, but, according to ibn Ezra, Moshe went to each and every tribe to inform them that he was about to die… but they should not fear; God would be with them.
As hard as it was for him, Moshe must have realized that by first confronting his emotions, then going out, and connecting personally with the people, he could help them move forward, directing their energy towards the future. By the way, the name of this Torah trope, Tevir, means broken. Moshe, facing the end, started going downhill emotionally, but engaging with others helped him end on a high note.
Change was clearly hard for Moshe as a leader, and for Bnai Yisrael as they prepared to enter a new Land. As we enter a new year, with its new realities, we too face challenges: as individuals, as citizens, and as part of a global community. So how do we confront our fears? How do we move forward? The key, I believe, is actually in the scariest part of the Mahzor – the Untane Tokef. Cue the dark, foreboding music….
Beginning with Rosh HaShana we recite: U’Tshuva, U’Tfilla U’Tzedaka ma’avirin et roa ha’gezera –
For many centuries, this phrase was understood quite literally: repentance, prayer and tzedaka will ma’avir (synonymous with mevatel)– they will cancel the bad decree on Yom Kippur.
As Professors Judith Hauptman and Jeff Hoffman have shown, this phrase, and this theology, are clearly in line with Biblical and Rabbinic sources and beliefs. It has meant what it said for centuries. But, as Hoffman points out, this theological formula has also bothered people for centuries. Not only is it scary, but it isn’t always true! Some of us have seen righteous people suffer calamity and even die between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or right after Yom Kippur. In other words, Tshuva, Tfilla U’Tzedaka don’t always work.
Acknowledging that Tshuva, Tfilla U’Tzedaka don’t always avert the final decree, be it poverty, illness, or even death, newer Mahzorim express the hope that these three actions will lessen the severity of the suffering as one deals with the decree.
But that still leaves us with an inconvenient theology: namely, that I can do Tshuva, Tfilla U’Tzedaka for days, and I can plead with God…but I can still get bad news.
Trying to preserve the original language, but making it less dogmatic, Hoffman suggests that “reading a prayer is not the same as davening a prayer.” He thinks “that we should understand this prayer not as a statement of theology” but rather as a dramatic push to do teshuvah. In other words, he says, “don’t take it literally, but do take it seriously.”
While some of us may not fear an actual death sentence on Yom Kippur, what is true for almost all of us is that we fear more change, more trauma, more loss, more curve balls. We are anxious about living, yet again, within new, reconfigured realities.
So, I offer you yet another translation of “ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah.” Instead of asking God to cancel the Yom Kippur decree, or to relieve our pain once the decree has been decided, maybe what we should be asking God to do is to help us be His partners, to help us be the ma’avireen: the people who help others transition through the severity of our times.
It’s tempting to retreat, to cocoon in our homes and take care of our own needs. But we need to be ma’avireen: the kind of people who give others the strength to face the unknowns of the next chapters in their lives, just as Moshe did.
And the way to do that is through the intentions, words, and connective actions of Tshuva, Tfilla and Tzedaka. Here’s how it works:
T’shuva helps us see who we’ve become, to ourselves, to others, and to God, and to see what’s facing us.
T’filla helps us externalize and affirm our values and commitments, and our connection to our community. Our prayers, just like our lives, are in the plural. We need to communicate horizontally, as well as vertically. Our devarim, our words, can lead to real things, to real change.
Tzedaka is fed by, and embodies T’shuva and T’filla. Interaction with others reduces stress and cynicism; it evokes feelings of gratitude. Acts of Hesed encourage us to imagine a brighter future.
Whether it was Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 which was exactly twenty years ago today, COVID, January 6th, Delta, or personal crises, we have all lived through events that forced us to re-examine who we are, what we believe, and how we think about our neighbors and our country.
To be ma’avee’reen, the first step is וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ (va’yelech) we have to wake up, and take stock of our new realities, of who we are now.
Then, וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה we need to engage with others, with words of compassion, with words that connect rather than divide, with words that recognize that we are all finding our way. We have to go אל כל שבט ושבט from tribe to tribe, encouraging, reassuring one another through words and actions that things will get better.
Through our words and our actions, we can help ma’avir et roa ha’gezera- we can help ourselves and others transition from fear to hope, from trauma to joy. Ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah is not about the depth or quantity of suffering; it’s about the power of our response to it. It’s the work we have to do now.
As we move forward, from this Shabbat Shuva, through Yom Kippur and beyond, may we all turn towards God and towards one another to truly ensure a Gmar Hatima Tova.