Vayelech: What is Not Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Greetings from the heart of Red Sox Nation, where hope never dies!

Besides the playoffs, we’re also in the season of “Shabbat Shuvah,” which is the name given to the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This week, between the holy days, is a special time of “returning (“t’shuvah”) to our best selves and our most precious relationships. Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the opening words of the Haftarah [prophetic reading], which urges the people of Israel to “return” (“shuvah Yisrael”)
to God.

The regular Torah portion for this week is Vayelech, which is set on the last
day of Moshe’s life. Moshe gives the leadership over to Joshua, and gives the Levites a Torah scroll for instruction. Moshe tells the people to gather every seven years to hear the Torah read publically, and concludes by predicting that in the future, they will stray from Torah, yet it will not be totally forgotten from “the mouths of their offspring.”

Rashi raises an interesting question about Moshe’s prediction that the
Israelites will stray from Moshe’s teaching after his death. (Cf. verse 31:29.) Rashi points out that later on, in the book of Judges, there’s a verse which says that the Israelites were actually faithful all the days of Joshua- Moshe’s successor. So if the Israelites were faithful during the days of
Joshua, why does Moshe say they’ll become “corrupt” after he- Moshe- dies?

Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“But actually, throughout all the days of Joshua, they [the Israelites] did not
become corrupt, for the verse states, “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua” (Jud. 2:7). [We learn] from here that a person’s disciple is as dear to him as his own self, for as long as Joshua was alive [even after Moshe’s passing], for Moshe it was as though he himself was alive.”

Rashi’s idea is that Moshe took comfort in knowing that his values, his
teaching, and his example would continue in the life of his faithful disciple- Joshua- even after his death. Seen this way, by being faithful during the time of Joshua, the Israelites were indeed, still being faithful to Moshe. This solves Rashi’s technical problem with the two contradictory
verses, but perhaps more importantly, Rashi’s midrash opens up our thinking about life and death, about legacy and loss, during the season of the Days of Awe.

One week from today, many of us will be in synagogue, reciting Yizkor [the
prayer of remembrance] for those who have passed on. Does Judaism insist on ritualized remembering purely for reasons of nostalgia? Rashi’s teaching seems to suggest another perspective on the remembrance of those we love: that in a very real sense, the work of the dead is carried on in the lives of those they taught while alive. As their work is carried on, their spirit, the essential meaning of their lives, is not lost- one can be faithful not only
in remembrance, but in exemplifying in action the values of those who have died.

By “work,” of course, I do not mean the family business (though that too is a
precious legacy for many people), but I mean the work of one’s passions, one’s priorities, a particular person’s particular sense of how to humanize this often cruel world. Each of us has to, at some point, let go of a loved one or respected mentor who taught us how to live. This is the cause of great grief, but Rashi seems to suggest that both the living and the dying can take comfort in seeing how a person’s unique teaching and example
enables what is most noble in a life to continue after the body has failed.
Yizkor- remembrance- is thus not a call to nostalgia, but to action; a remembrance not of death, but a remembering of how to live.

Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast to all,


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