This Torah portion is read on September 12, 2020
Vayeilech recounts the end of Moses’s life. He gives Joshua the mantle of leadership, and tells the people of Israel that though they will turn from God, causing God to turn from them, He will come back.
Parshat Vayeilech Summary
Vayeilech Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 31:1–30
Moses begins Parshat Vayeilech by explaining to the people that he isn't going to continue to be their leader. He won't be the one to lead the people into the land. He's going to have a successor, Joshua, who will take his place. Joshua will lead the people as they cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land and as they take on the land's inhabitants in battle.
But does Moses really mean for Joshua to take his place? To be the same kind of leader that he, Moses, was? To replace him? Beth Lesch reads this parsha's description of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua and sees hints that suggest a more nuanced picture, that suggest that Moses wanted the people to relate differently to Joshua than they had related to Moses over these past 40 years. She explores it all in a podcast conversation with Daniel Loewenstein: What's Wrong With Moses' Leadership?
Now, Parshat Vayeilech tells us about what happened on this final day of Moses' life, about what he said to the people, to Joshua... but it doesn't tell us what Moses was thinking or feeling on that day – at least not outright. What was it like for Moses to come so close to the Promised Land, knowing that he would never be able to cross into it? To be denied the only thing that he really yearned for at the end of his life?
Does Parshat Vayeilech give us a way to answer these questions? Or are we left to our own speculation? Rabbi Fohrman thinks that there is a text which can help us to understand what Moses was going through in these final moments – but it's not Parshat Vayeilech. It's Psalm 90. Reading this psalm alongside the narrative of our parsha, he paints a poignant portrait of the inner life of Moses. Check it out in his video, "Moses' Farewell To Israel."
After Moses tells the people that he won't be leading them anymore, that Joshua will take over, and that they can trust in God to protect them, just as God has helped them to defeat all of their enemies up until now... he stops to describe a particular mitzvah: the mitzvah of hakhel. Every seven years, during the holiday of Sukkot, the people are to gather together as one in Jerusalem and hear a full recitation of the Torah.
Reading the details of this mitzvah, you can't help but wonder if hahkel isn't an important part of Moses' "transition strategy." Moses was God's most esteemed prophet, he was the one who transmitted the Torah to the people – but he wouldn't be around to teach them the Torah anymore. He was their intermediary, he served as their connection to the Torah – but he is being phased out. So it seems crucial to have a ritual whereby the people can continue to learn and connect directly to that Torah.
After describing the mitzvah of hahkel, God requests that Moses and Joshua come to the Tent of Meeting where God will unofficially invest Joshua with the authority to serve as leader. But then God "turns" to Moses and says something very odd:
"Behold, you are [about to] lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?' And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities." (Deuteronomy 31:16-18)
God is basically saying: "Moses, you're about to die, and the people are going to sin, they're going to ruin everything. You've worked your whole life to try to build up this nation, to position them to serve Me and have a positive and enduring relationship with me... and when you go, I'm sorry to say, it's all going to come crashing down."
Why is God saying this to Moses, and now?? The answer may come in God's very next words:
"And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel." (Deuteronomy 31:19)
What song is this? It's the song of "Ha'azinu," the poetic verses that we will read in the next parsha, Parshat Ha'azinu. But how does this answer our question?? God told Moses that all is doomed, that the people are going to bring about catastrophe... and then He instructs Moses to teach the people a song? What is this song all about? Is the song of Ha'azinu somehow going to dissuade the people from sinning? Is it supposed to function as an "antidote"? And if so, how?
That is the topic of Rabbi Fohrman's three-part series, "Looking Towards The Future," in which he explores this mysterious song, identifies its "antidotal" properties, and finds within it instructions for how we, in our own day, might return from our own sins and repair our relationship with God.