Parashat Vayelech: Return

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel, and he said to them…(Devarim 31:1-2)

If only I could go back in time,
I would undo my sins;
retrieve the words that I regret;
instead I can but cover them
with fierce intent to do things differently,
as with a layer of earth
freshly turned
in which I will plant

This time, the roots
more firmly anchored,
might abide securely;
the branches spread –
a verdant canopy
to catch the sky-sent dew.

In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis addresses the first verse of Parashat Vayelech. The parasha opens with the words, “Vayelech Moshe va’yedaber et hadevarim ha’eleh – Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel, and he said to them…” All the commentators struggle with where Moses went. Surely it would have sufficed to say (as it does frequently in the Torah) “Moses said…” Rabbi Lewis quotes the Kli Yakar*, who suggests that Moses wished to encourage the people to do teshuva, to repent, so he went personally from tent to tent, to everyone in Israel, and spoke these words to his [each person’s] heart. The Kli Yakar sees the mission of peacemaking as a supreme one, and he includes in this the idea, not only of making peace between man and his fellow, but also between man and God. He cites the phrase from the haftarah which exhorts us, “Take with you words and return to God.” (Hosea 14:3) These words, according to the Kli Yakar, could be of confession – between man and God, or conciliation – between man and man. The Kli Yakar envisages the urgency with which Moses views his task – he is at the end of his life, yet he sees the need and finds the energy to visit each person’s tent, to encourage all the people to make peace with each other and with God.

The Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah – the Shabbat of Return or Repentance. (This year it falls on Parashat Vayelech). Repentance is the core concept of the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe and is the theme of the haftarah – the reading from the prophets,  for Shabbat Shuvah. The text is drawn mainly from Hosea (14:2-10) and opens with the word, “Shuvah“, here used as an exhortation to Israel, “Return!” The word in some form reappears several times: “Shuvu – Return!” also an imperative; subsequently God undertakes to heal the people’s backsliding, once they move towards repentance – “Erpah meshuvatam“; and again He declares “Veshav api mimenu – My anger has turned away from them.” Hosea issues a resounding call for human repentance, and in beautiful imagery of trees flourishing, nurtured by the dew, promises that God will return and bestow divine blessing and sustenance on those who return to Him.

* Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 – 1619) was a rabbi, poet and Torah commentator, best known for his Torah commentary Kli Yakar. He served as the Rabbi of Prague from 1604 – 1619.
Born in Lenczyk (also known as Luntschitz), he studied under Rabbi Solomon Luria in Lublin, and subsequently served as Rosh Yeshiva in Lvov (Lemberg). In 1604 he was appointed rabbi of Prague, a position he filled until his death.


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