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Vayelech 5773

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

The Hebrew name of today's Sidra means he went. In its number of verses, it is the shortest Sidra of the year, but it is read on its own only rarely, when Yom Kippur falls on either Wednesday or Thursday.

The Sidra sets out Moses speech on the last day of his life. It is interesting to note that the third Sidra in the beginning of the Torah is called LECH LECHA and the third Sidra from the end is called VAYELECH. I believe that this symmetrical arrangement is deliberate. It symbolises the tremendous progress which the Israelites made from very first moment when Abraham was called upon to leave his home and settle in the land that the Almighty would show him, until now, when Moses was addressing the Israelites, as they were about to enter the land, as a nation.

In the first sentence, the Torah tells us that Moses went, but it failed to inform us as to his destination or the purpose of his going. Some commentators suggest that the verb HALACH, to go, sometimes means to decide upon an action. In that case, the sentence means, simply, that Moses decided to continue his speech. Other commentators, however, prefer to understand the verb according to its normal sense.  Accordingly, we are being told that Moses left the plaza, in front of the Tent of Meeting, where the nation had gathered for the declaration of the covenant and visited the people in their own camp.

According to rabbinic tradition, he visited every single tribe separately to tell them about his imminent death. He wanted to comfort and reassure them that they should not be afraid of the task ahead. He told them that he had reached the age of 120 and that, therefore, they should not be too sad. He wanted to make the point, also, that he was too old to continue to be their military leader, which they needed at that point. According to the famous mediaeval commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, he also used the opportunity to give them the blessings which are found in the last Sidra of the Torah called: VEZOT HAB’RACHA.

Moses told them, in this speech of reassurance, that it was not he who had given them their success. He acted purely as God's agent. God would continue going ahead of them and destroying their enemies. He also told them that in Joshua they would have a very strong leader. Indeed, Joshua proved to be a very great leader. It is possible that he was the greatest biblical leader who arose in Israel, for he was the only leader, who throughout his career, never met with any opposition. The conquest of the land, which he led was successful. The second generation of Israelites proved to be good and brave soldiers.

Moses gave Joshua a very memorable blessing in front of the whole people: CHAZAK VE-EMATZ “Be strong and of good courage”. We use this blessing to this very day. Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakkohen of Dvinsk comments: Moses said to Joshua: It is true that you are very humble man, but when all Israel’s eyes are directed to you, you must be strong. The humble dimension of your character, you must keep private!

In verse nine the Torah tells us that Moses gave the Torah, which he had written, to the priests and leaders. He entrusted them with its safekeeping and told them to disseminate its contents. He told them that, at the end of every seven years, during the Festival of Sukkot, the entire nation had to assemble in Jerusalem, and listen to the public reading of the whole Torah by the King. According to rabbinic tradition this reading took place immediately after the end of the year of release, at the very beginning of the new seven-year cycle. Rabbinic tradition also tells us that the King read only the book of D’VARIM. This mitzvah became known by the name HAKHEL, which means: Convene a national assembly. There was a special obligation to bring the children to the assembly. The Torah does not indicate what age the children had to be. But, according to one view, children under the age of 14 did not have to appear.

Why was the Festival of Sukkot chosen for this most important national assembly?  Because SUKKOT comes at the end of the harvest. After a long absence from their homes, people come back from the fields happy. After that, everybody is free to come and pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Having finished the work, people were much more attuned to learning. The purpose of this special mitzvah was to give an opportunity to the Jewish people to renew their understanding of the Torah and its Commandments, so that they should never come to be regarded as antiquated.

Chapter 31 verse 18 reads: “on that day I shall surely hide my face”   The concept of the concealed face in this sentence is offered as the answer to many difficulties which some believers have. The concept of Hester Panim-concealment of divine face- comes to teach us that there are moments, hours days and years years when the Almighty withdrawals his providence in the world. The creator conceals himself so that the world is given in to the powers of evil and wicked people. The concealment makes possible for us to experience horrific deeds. The world remains without a protector. God’s compassion vanishes. Some philosophers have tried to explain the Holocaust as a massive manifestation of this theological concept. Indeed, without it, it is impossible to understand the suffering of the Jewish people during that time. 

There is a Hasidic parable given in the name of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement who lived between the years 1700 and 1760:  A King instructed one of his servants to smack the Prince for behaving badly. So long as the King is watching, the servant does not dare to obey. So the king turns away from the scene, so that the servant can do what he has been told. So he hits the Prince very hard.

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