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
greatly
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,

rnjl

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