Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Listening provides a space for thinking new thoughts.

As the Torah – originally taught orally and only written down much later — instructs us, “Shema!” Listen. Listen and do good things.

This week’s parsha is called Va-yelekh (coinciding in 5779 with Yom Kippur), the shortest portion in the Torah. Usually it is combined with the prior week’s portion, Nitsavim (coinciding with Rosh Hashanah), which includes the famous passage reflected in the liturgical Un’ Taneh Tokef prayer: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” We are advised is to choose the former — life and prosperity —by following God’s commandments. This year, however, “Va-yelekh stands alone. It refers to the fact that Moses “went and spoke” what was on his mind to all of Israel. And what was on his mind? He was announcing his retirement and had put a lot of thought into who would succeed him so that the Israelites would, indeed, listen and do good things when they entered the Promised land.

Moses retiring? Impossible. He had guided the Hebrews out of Egypt and through 40 years in the desert. But he was now 120 years old, a long time to be actively in the work force, let alone its leader. (That’s why when we bless someone, we Jews still say, “You should live to be 120!” We don’t think about 55 + or even 65 + as being the gateway to senior status. If you’re a Jew — or at any rate, a biblical Jew, you keep going.) And Moses understood — because God firmly told him so— that he could not be the one to cross the Jordan and enter Israel as the Jewish leader. It was time for a new generation, “strong and resolute,” to take over. “in the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them.” Time to step down.

So, with God’s instruction in mind, and undoubtedly with a sigh of relief, Moses passed on the leadership torch to his chosen leader, Joshua, whom he considered strong and resolute, a star pupil well equipped to carry on. “It is you {Joshua], who will apportion [the land]to them,” to the people (31:7), Moses instructed.

However, with a skillful continuity in mind, Moses had prepared the way for Joshua with written instructions. The Torah portrays God as appearing to Moses in a pillar of cloud and enjoining him to write down this instruction, this Teaching in the form of a poem, so that the Teaching would never be lost. If the people went astray and worshipped other gods – and indeed idol worship abounded in Canaan, the land they were about to enter, this poem would serve as a witness to the way they were supposed to behave.

Moses therefore instructed Joshua, to first give the Teaching to the priests and the elders of Israel (thus developing consensus, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and then to read it himself aloud (thus letting the people know who was in charge) every seven years in the presence of all the gathered people of Israel, including the strangers in their communities, and in the holy place that God would determine. In turn, the people were instructed to listen, “to hear and learn to revere the Lord your God and, along with their children, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching.

And then Moses, the retiring leader, eloquently “recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (31:30). What he had to say, this Teaching, is told poetically in next week’s parsha, “Ha’azinu.” They were his last words as the leader of the Israelite people.

Listen in to next week’s portion, Ha’azinu, for biblical poetry that has survived almost 6,000 years. Essentially, it is a love poem to God.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.