Vayelech - Weekly Torah Portion

We are just about the end. Moses admits, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go” and therefore it is time to finish up and change the leadership. At this opportunity Moses orders, “At the end of seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law.” These people are those who have completed the journey through the desert and will be the ones to actually enter the Promised Land. All of them must preent themselves and must listen, learn, fear and observe.

Then Moses discuss that which should happen with the descendants of those people and demands, “Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” The phrase “who have not known” refers to the fact that this second group has not experienced firsthand the crossing of the river Jordan and the passage into the land of Canaan. There is something missing in their desert experience – it lacks the knowledge, the scars of many days of walking in the wilderness, and the marks that this leaves on the people’s backs. Therefore the expectations from them is different they must listen, they have to learn, and need to fear, however, the demand of observance is not present for these next generations, those already born in the Land of Israel.

Is it really true that the need to observe can simply be dropped? I do not think this to be the case. It seems that the observance that was required when in the desert, when wandering from one place to another, when constant change of place, scenery, and needs, is now different. When settling in a permanent dwelling there are new challenges that one needs to adapt to, reflect upon, and firmly face. There is therefore a need to listen as this is a point of reference – things have happened in the past. We must learn to understand how what we have learned from the past is useable in the future or is simply an opposite. All of that has to be done with a good amount of fear. Why is that so? Because when it does not exist we may easily drift to extremes, be it an extreme conservatism that stifles every opportunity to progress, or, extreme liberalism that reaches a point that is beyond any kind of reasonable control or check, leaving us unable determine if things are working properly.

This is Shabbat Shuva, which is relevant to this generation that lives here in Israel as it is a generation that comes and goes, increasing and decreasing its distances. In the Haftarah we read from the book of Hosea that “For the ways of the Lord are right, And the righteous will walk in them, But transgressors will stumble in them.” It is the very same way that the righteous and the transgressors walk but the righteous person will succeed walking there through while the transgressor will fail. One can just wonder why exactly that would be when both use the exact same route? Why would not all succeed or fail? Here we must remember the demand from our generation, the generations that have not come out of the desert, but is required to listen, learn and fear. The righteous embodies these three principles and therefore his way is blessed. One who does not make the effort will ultimately fail.

It is the first week of the Jewish New Year 5780, we are just about to celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and I would like to wish us all the ability to listen, the thrill of learning, and the braveness in fear. The ability to listen requires us to have an open ear to those who are different, those with whom we have fundamental disagreements but can learn much from. The learning, even when demanding heals the soul, open opportunities not there before, abilities we lacked, and experiences not experienced before. Sometimes we try to skip the learning because our routine is demanding, times are tough, other things are more pressing or urgent. Yet it is good to find time to study, if possible every day, to learn something new. Fear requires some courage because it is not easy to expose our vulnerabilities. Once we learn something new we may have to do things differently from what we practiced and preached yesterday or the day before that.

So on this Shabbat when we call “Returns”, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, For you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord.” It is not things we are called upon to take with us but words which we have learned, because as we know, “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova and Chatima Tova.

Reuven Marko, 4 October 2019, 6 Tishrei, 5780

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