Author's Note on Parshat Vayelech
Date: September 14, 2018
5 Tishrei 5779
Parshat Vayelech opens with an unusual phrasing: “Vayelech Moshe Vayidaber et ha’devarim ha’eleh el kol Yisrael” – Moshe went out and spoke these words to all of Israel. Couldn’t the Torah have just said Vayidaber Moshe et ha’devarim ha’eleh el kol Yisrael – Moshe spoke these words to all of Israel? A little tighter editing seems in order. Instead, we begin with Vayelech Moshe – and Moshe went out. Why?
The word Vayelech is used throughout the Torah (other than in the book of Vayikra – apparently no one ever went anywhere in the book of Vayikra) to mean that someone went FROM somewhere and/or TO somewhere. For example, later in this week’s Parsha we read “Vayelech Moshe v’Yehoshua – Moshe and Yehoshua went out and stood in the Tent of Meeting [as G-d had commanded them].” In just about every case, except one other, the word Vayelech is used where the text or context is clear about where the actor (or actors) came from or went to. The one other notable exception? In Parshat Shmot: “Vayelech ish mi beit Levi vayikach et bat Levi – A man of the House of Levi went out and married a woman of the House of Levi”. They had a son and named him Moshe.
In the Talmud we learn that we should repent the day before we die. But, asks the Talmud (Shabbat 153a), who knows the day before he will die? Well, Moshe knew. G-d told him when he would die. His mind was clear and his eyes were not dimmed. So what did he do? “Vayelech Moshe”. He went out.
Before he said “these words” to the people of Israel, he went outside of himself to another time. He went back to his earliest memories when he was told the story of how Vayelech ish mi beit Levi and his parents hid him as a baby in a basket to be picked up by Pharaoh’s daughter. He travelled back to the place where he saw his people brutally enslaved and how he killed an Egyptian and had to flee to Midian where he met the Midianite priest, Jethro, and married his daughter. Of course, he remembered the triumphs and the sublime moments when he stood face-to-face with G-d and brought us His Torah; His covenant. But he also remembered the more “human” moments. He remembered the birth of his sons (Gershom and Eliezer) and the deaths of his brother Aaron and sister Miriam. Moshe was by himself now (Vayelech Moshe – no one went with him); but he was not alone. We argued with Moshe and he argued for us before G-d. We complained to him and he inspired us. He was the faithful shepherd even if we were not always the quiet flock of sheep. It was a day before his death and he went out and remembered all that had happened over the past 120 years (and before) and contemplated all that would happen after he would leave us.
This Tuesday night and Wednesday we observe Yom Kippur. It is a time for repentance and return (Teshuvah). We spend the entire day in the synagogue saying “these words” to G-d. But before we do that, we need to go out (Vayelech). We need to go outside of our current time and place and think back over the past year (or more); consider where we were, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.