Vayelech: Leading the words

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel (Devarim 31:1)

Sometimes
I hold the book before me,
reciting prayers by rote,
my mind afloat far off.
The power of the words
might yet invite me, guide me back.

But sometimes, focused,
I hope that I might find within
a vessel, to hold the ancient words.
I might then lift them up
and set them free.


The opening words of Parashat Vayelech “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel”  (Devarim 31:1) elicit the immediate question “Where did Moses go to speak these things?” He was already in front of the assembled people, as we know from the last parasha.
Surprisingly, Rashi has no comment on this, but other exegetes offer their suggestions: the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194–1270) teaches that after Moses finishes his address to the people (in Parashat Nitzavim), the people disperse to their tents. Moses desires to bid them all farewell before he dies, but he wishes it to be a personal leave-taking – he wants to deliver his message himself. So this is the meaning of “he went” – from the Levite camp where he lives, to the tribal areas where the people live, and speaks to them all in turn.
Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089–1167) makes a further suggestion of where Moses goes: he submits that Moses wants to comfort and encourage the people in the face of his imminent death. He assures them that God will guide them, through the agency of Joshua. Ibn Ezra surmises that it is now, when he visits individually with each tribe, that Moses bestows his final blessings, as we read later in Parashat Vezot Ha’berachah.

The Chasidic Masters also have suggestions concerning the nature of Moses’s “going”. The Noam Megadim (Rabbi Eliezer HaLevi Horowitz of Tarnigrad, d. 1806) teaches: “Moses, even after he went, after he died and passed from the world – “He spoke these things”, he is still speaking and making the voice of his Torah heard – “to all Israel”, because anything a learned pupil might suggest in the future, has already been said to Moses…”
The Mishmeret Itamar (R. Itamar ben Israel Wohlgelerenter of Konskowola, d. 1831) teaches “The steps [literally “goings”] of his life and his behavior throughout his days and years – Moses spoke these things to all Israel – he discussed and taught to all of Israel.”
The Devash veChalav’s teaching, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Krengel of Krakow, 1847-1930) suggests that the people knew that Moses was to deliver all 613 mitsvot to them before his death. Until he gathered them together, as we read in last week’s parasha Nitsavim, they had only received 611 (the last two yet to be given were “Hakhel” – concerning the mandatory assembly of all Jewish men, women and children, as well as “strangers” to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel once every seven years; and the instruction to “Write down this poem [and teach it to the people of Israel…]” (the commandment for each Jew to write a personal copy of the Torah – nowadays, helping towards the purchase of a Sefer Torah and having a scribe fill in a letter on one’s behalf at its completion is considered fulfillment of this mitsva). So the Devash veChalav brings the notion that the people did not assemble again to receive these last two, thus delaying the bitter moment of Moses’s death. Once he realised, “Moses went” himself to instruct them about these last commandments, as he did not want their entry into the land to be delayed on his account.
The Me’aynah shel Torah (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman 1897 – 1943 (incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Trawnicki)) notes “It is not written where [to which place] Moses went, but the end of the phrase clarifies its beginning. “Moses went – to all Israel” – he entered the heart and spirit of all Israel. In the innermost recesses of every person in Israel, in his blood and his soul, in all the times and eras, there can be found a spark of Moses our Teacher.”
From the Toledot Yitschak (Rabbi Yitschak Karo 1458-1535) we learn: “And it is not written to where Moses went – because wherever he went, he spoke these words: in the street, during negotiations, at work, in private and communal undertakings – everywhere he introduced the word of God.”
Chasidic writings add “This phraseology has not been used elsewhere in the Torah. Everywhere it says: he said, he spoke, he gathered – and here – he went. So we learn that according to the sages (in Berachot 31) “Before taking leave of his fellow a man should always finish with a matter of halachah, so that he should remember him thereby” thus when Moses was about to take leave of the world, he died with a matter of Halachah – the laws of repentance and the commandment to reprove one another [a loving rebuke intended as constructive not destructive criticism]…”

However, the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, has a different idea for this enigmatic phrase. In his book A Partner in Holiness* vol 2 Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary on Parashat Vayelech from the Kedushat Levi – the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The Berditchever suggests that we interpret this verse in the light of the idioms which the Talmudic sages employ in speaking of someone leading the congregation in prayer. They use two idioms, one found in Shabbat 24b “[shaliach tsibbur ha’yored lifnei ha’teivah] – a prayer leader who goes down before the ark” (here we can visualize an ancient amphitheater-like synagogue), and the other in Berachot 34a “[ha’over lifnei ha’teivah] – one who passes before the ark.”
Rabbi Slater quotes Rabbi Levi Yitschak “When a righteous person prays before God, he must attach himself to the words (teivot) that he is praying [a play on words – teivah means both word and ark]. Those holy words direct him in prayer. But there are those who are at a higher spiritual degree and they direct the words of prayer.” This, he tells us, is the level of Moses, as we learn in the Zohar. Rabbi Slater continues with Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching, “So someone who “goes down before the ark” is led by the words, and he is below the words (teivah). But there is a righteous one who “goes before the ark,” and she leads the words (teivah, she stands above them. Here we are at the end of Moses’s life when the wellsprings of wisdom were stopped up from him (cf Sotah 13b), and so instead, the first quality applied to him and the words led him. This is the sense of our verse “Moses went and spoke” – he went toward Speech, and the word was above him.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak then suggests an explanation why Moses’s prophecy in Ha’azinu (next week’s parasha) is quite enigmatic, unlike anything else in the Torah. He says that until then, Moses’s prophecy had been as through a clear glass, whereas all other prophets’ prophecies had been as through unclear glass (Yevamot 49b). Thus Moses was able to express his words exactly as he had received them from God, with no “garment” or use of riddles or parables. The other prophets had to “dress” their words with parables and thus their prophesies are frequently enigmatic. However, before Moses died, the channel of wisdom was transferred to Joshua. Hence the poem Ha’azinu is obscure and “covered in garments.”
Rabbi Slater extrapolates Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching to modern times. He says that today we might have a different explanation for the obvious contrast between the language used in Ha’azinu and elsewhere in the Torah. But the Berditchever, he says, is always seeking to “connect Torah to lived experience, to help us apply it to our own lives.”  So he frames the experience for us, not in terms of prophecy, but of prayer.
Rabbi Slater says, “The experience of (Moses’s) prophecy is likened to the experience of one who prays with such concentration that authentic words of prayer issue forth with clarity and intention. We can assume that this sort of prayer is grounded in the siddur [prayer book] but extends beyond it. The words of the prayer book may be the start of prayer but no longer lead the person in his or her devotion. This is, in Levi Yitschak’s eyes, a higher form of prayer. The lower form – “going down before the ark (word – teivah),” being led by the words of the siddur – is still that of a righteous person (a tzaddik), and so laudable. But the challenge to us, perhaps, is to investigate how we pray, how we pray the words of the siddur, and how we express ourselves through those words and beyond in our prayers.”

*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi

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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
anew.

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.

Vayelech: Lost, unsought

And I, I will surely hide My face on that day… (Devarim 31:18).

The child crouches, weeping,
sheltered by the grey stone wall;
the Rebbe hears her sobbing
and gently asks her why.

She was playing hide-and-seek,
she says, and hid herself too well;
her friends despaired of finding her,
gave up and went away.

The Rebbe sighs and ponders,
hearing strains of God’s lament:
I hid My face, and now
My children search for Me no more.


This story is told of Rabbi Dov Ber (the Maggid) of Mezeritch* who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. He perceived the child’s friends who gave up on her because she was so well-hidden, as a metaphor for God’s people who give up looking for Him and start to live their lives without Him. And God is pained when they no longer seek Him out.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel** was one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. Much of his work sought to free Jewish theology from the constraints of Maimonides’ philosophical concept of an absolutely transcendent God who is independent of humanity. Rabbi Heschel counterposed the concept of divine pathos, that is, of a God who searches for man, who is in need of man. He emphasized the interdependency of the divine and the human. He held that Judaism is so commandment-oriented precisely because God’s kingship is realized on earth through the fulfillment of the commandments. He noted the striking rabbinical concept that it is human witness that makes God real, often citing the midrashic gloss to Isaiah 43:12, ” ‘So you are My witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I am God,’ meaning: “When you are my witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.” [1]

Based on the phrase, “Va’anochi haster asteer panai – And I, I will surely hide My face on that day,” the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the repetition of the word “I” means that even in the hardest times of (God’s) concealment, the “Anochi – I” will still be there. That, he says, is God’s promise, that He will not desert us in times of trouble.

The Chiddushei HaRim teaches on the same phrase, that if we know and feel that there is hiddenness, it is not really hiddenness. The tragedy, he says, is not so great, because then come the longings and yearnings to reveal the Shechina – the Divine Presence. These break through all barriers – and there is no greater repentance than this. However, he says, “The trouble is when the hiddenness is itself hidden, and we do not even realise that God’s face is hidden. No-one looks for God, and for His supreme loving-kindness and for heavenly radiance.” The Chiddushei HaRim interprets this phrase as “I will hide the hiddenness (from them),” meaning “I will dull their hearts and blunt their senses so they will not even feel that they are missing the yearning for God.”

The Etz Hayyim commentary of the JPS, says on the concept of God concealing His face, “To understand the Shoah, Martin Buber,*** who fled Germany for Palestine when the Nazis came to power, fastened on this image of God’s hiding. God is always present, but sometimes turns aside and hides the Divine countenance. Terrible things happen when God’s countenance is hidden, when God’s attention is turned away.”

[1] Excerpted from First Things, the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel by Reuven Kimelman. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/the-theology-of-abraham-joshua-heschel

*Rabbi Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezeritch (1700/1704/1710 – 1772) was a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic Judaism, and was chosen as his successor to lead the early movement. Rabbi Dov Ber is regarded as the first systematic exponent of the mystical philosophy underlying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and through his teaching and leadership, the main architect of the movement. He established his base in Mezeritch (in Volynia), which moved the center of Chassidism from the Baal Shem Tov’s Medzhybizh (in Podolia), where he focused his attention on raising a close circle of great disciples to spread the movement. His inner circle of disciples, known as the Chevraia Kadisha (“Holy Brotherhood”), included his son Rabbi Avraham HaMalach (The Angel), Rabbi Nachum of Czernobyl, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh, Rabbi Aharon (HaGadol) of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. These disciples, being themselves great Talmudic authorities and well-versed in Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy, were successful in turning Chassidut into a vast movement. After R’ Dov Ber’s death, avoiding the unified leadership of the first two generations, this third generation of leadership took their different interpretations and disseminated across appointed regions of Eastern Europe. Under the inspiration of their teacher, this rapidly spread Chassidism beyond the Ukraine, to Poland, Galicia and Russia.
His teachings appear in his own books and in the works authored by his disciples.

**Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. He was descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of his family. After a traditional yeshiva education and studying for Orthodox rabbinical ordination semicha, Rabbi Heschel pursued both a doctorate at the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination, studying under some of the most eminent Jewish educators of the time. He joined a Yiddish poetry group and in 1933, published a volume of Yiddish poems. In late October 1938, while living in a rented room in the home of a Jewish family in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. He spent ten months lecturing on Jewish philosophy and Torah at Warsaw’s Institute for Jewish Studies. Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, he left Warsaw for London. His mother and three of his five siblings were murdered by the Nazis (his father had died when Heschel was nine). He reached New York City in 1940 and in 1946 took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He served as professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism until his death.
Heschel explicated many facets of Jewish thought, including studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Chassidism. According to some scholars, he was more interested in spirituality than in critical text study.
Heschel believed the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a clarion call for social action in the United States and worked for African Americans’ civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
Heschel is a widely read Jewish theologian whose most influential works include Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, and The Prophets. At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or referred to an expected conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one. He believed that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.

***Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Born in Vienna, Buber came from a family of observant Jews (he was a direct descendant of the prominent 16th century rabbi, R’ Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam of Padua) but he broke with Jewish custom after a personal religious crisis: he then started reading Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. The latter two, in particular, inspired him to pursue studies in philosophy. In 1896, Buber went to Vienna to pursue secular studies in philosophy. In 1902, he became the editor of the weekly Die Welt, the central organ of the Zionist movement, although he later withdrew from organizational work in Zionism. In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into the German language.
In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main, but resigned in protest from his professorship immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became an increasingly important body as the German government forbade Jews to attend public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University and lecturing in anthropology and introductory sociology.