This week’s Torah portion is Vayelekh, Deuteronomy 31:1 – 30.
When I was young, I was a huge fan of Batman. I’m sure I saw every episode of the 1960s TV show, and am pretty sure I saw each one multiple times. I lost count of how many times I watched the movie starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Like many boys, I wanted to be Batman, and who could blame us? He had money, charisma, he was a hero and, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie, he had “all those wonderful toys.”
As Christopher Nolan led a reboot of the Batman movies starting in 2005, I watched with a more mature interest. Gone was the character who, while tormented, always ended up doing what was right. He was replaced by a darker Bruce Wayne/Batman, played by Christian Bale, who struggled with administering justice within the bounds of the law. Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” raised philosophical questions about justice and ethics which appealed to a more mature audience that had grown up on the Batman series.
One of my favorite lines in Nolan’s trilogy is stated by Wayne’s father, Thomas, and repeated by his trusty butler, Alfred: “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” As we read this week’s parsha, Vayelekh, and approach Yom Kippur, this sentiment never seems more relevant.
Here is Moses giving his final address to the Israelites before they cross the Jordan: “He said to them, ‘I am now 120 years old, I am no longer able to go and come’” (Deuteronomy 31:2).
Rabbi Menahem Mendel Twersky of Chernobyl, an early chasidic rebbe, explains this verse by saying, “a righteous person who moves from one [spiritual] level to another can only go higher if he first falls from a prior rung.” Moses, by this point in his life, had reached the highest level of wisdom a person could reach and had realized he had nowhere left to go. It was at that point that he knew he could no longer lead the Israelites.
As we approach Yom Kippur, this message rings even more true. One of the dominant themes of this holy day is the conflict between who we are and who we want to be. We do heshbon nefesh, which is best understood as “soul searching,” to think of all the things we’ve done in the last year and consider what we could have done better. We then aim to do teshuvah, “repentance,” or, more literally, “returning” to the best path for ourselves. Put in slightly different terms, we look at all the places we have fallen in the last year so that we can learn to pick ourselves up.
While this process can be difficult and even painful for some people, the truth is there is no way around it. As humans, we are inherently imperfect and bound to make mistakes, do the wrong thing on occasion and be led astray. Admitting these mistakes, acknowledging where we’ve fallen and taking responsibility for the choices we’ve made open the door for change. Then, by recognizing where we may have failed in the past year, we can raise ourselves up to the next, higher rung.
Rabbi Steven Henkin is the director of congregational learning at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.