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