This week’s Torah portion is Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1-30.
Three parshiyot into the book of Genesis we read Lech Lecha, God’s command to Abram and Sarai to “go to a land that I will show you.” That moment sets in motion the great journey, both physical and spiritual, which we relive every year in the reading and studying of the Torah.
The Torah is rarely static, and we begin this week with Vayeilech, a kind of bookend to Lech Lecha.
Moses, unlike Avraham, does not enter the land. He has followed the command of God in the exodus from Egyptian slavery and taken a 40-year journey only to have an obstacle placed in his way. Not even the sea could halt him before this moment; now, it is God’s will that Moses would not enter the land.
We look at the meaning of Vayeilech, “and he went …”
Instead of emphasizing the physical aspect of his walking at the age of 120 years, the spiritually deep character of Moses is revealed in the words: “And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel.”
This is his last day alive, and he wants to inspire the people.
How? By walking among them and with them. By being with them and by reassuring them of his love. According to the Ramban, Nachmanides, Moses does this so that they will not mourn his death when he leaves them with the books of the Torah and the promise of the land. As God walks in the wilderness with the people, even in battle, so too Moses has walked, is walking and will remain with the people even after death.
The Italian rabbinic commentator, Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, says that Vayeilech indicates “animation,” or stirring oneself to action. Moses is walking in order to inspire the people before they enter the land.
We can imagine that as he goes from tribe to tribe, the people line the path he walks for as far as the eye can see. They applaud and cheer Moses who can be seen over the crowd due to his stature — which according to tradition never diminished, and he kept growing taller. No one looks at his cloth garments or notices they are worn or out of style. Instead they see all that Moses represents.
That Moses walked on his last day, going to the people in order to speak the words of God, would have been overwhelming.
The midrash Tanchuma states that Vayeilech implies admonition. Yet Sforno claims that Moses went to comfort Israel over his imminent death. He reassured the people that the sacred agreement with God was secure and that Joshua would lead them. These were reasons to be happy. The Torah would be proclaimed to all, including the strangers. Moses then transformed the words into song, so that even the admonition would be pleasant to listen to.
As Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of repentance and return, is the setting for this reading, may we sing this song together, bringing Torah to the world, just as Moses walked — not waiting for people to come and listen, but bringing Torah with him as he walked.
By doing this, Moses united us.
May this year be one of study, a year in which we will find a way to unite as a people while inspiring others with this song, the Torah, for life and for shalom.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Congregation Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf, Maryland, Hevrat Shalom in King Farm and Congregation Beit Chaverim of Calvert County.