Parashat Vayelech 5777

Rabbi Danny Rich, 7 October 2016

Parashat Vayelech, from its opening word: ‘And he (Moses) went…’ is one of seven Torah portions that, depending on the number of shabbatot in a year, can be read separately or with Nitzavim.

Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30) opens the epilogue of both Deuteronomy and the whole of the Torah with a declaration by Moses that at 120 years old he is no longer able to lead the Children of Israel. In a moment of public drama Moses hands over general and military authority to his designated successor, Joshua, and cultic or religious leadership to the priests and elders of Israel, with the specific instruction that the Torah – a copy of which Moses has completed in writing and will be deposited in the Ark – should be read to the people every seven years at Sukkot.

As death approaches Moses invites a selected audience to hear his farewell address, having shared with Joshua God’s view that after his death the people will abandon his legacy, fall into idolatry and be collectively punished as a result.

The instruction to the priests and elders in verses 10 to 13 is that when the whole congregation ‘appears before God’ at what was probably the most popular of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Sukkot) and in every seventh year the whole Torah should be read aloud in public to the ‘men, women, children and strangers in your communities’.

As the Jewish people became first a more settled – and latterly a more scattered- community the religious authorities of the day put this instruction into effect by ordaining the reading of a section of Torah four times per week: on Mondays and Thursday mornings (market days), on Shabbat afternoons, and most prominently on Shabbat mornings.

It further became the tradition that in the majority of communities the whole of the Torah would be read over the course of a single year although this was not always the case everywhere since some communities opted for a three year cycle – in accord with the Babylonian (probably later) practice not the Palestinian one.

This Shabbat is also Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return: the Shabbat between Rosh HaShnah and Yom Kippur. It is so called after one of the selected traditional haftarah readings from the prophet Hosea. Hosea lived in the 8th century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and addressed himself to the social and religious ills of his society, promising God’s forgiveness of the people would return to the values of Torah. In 14:2 Hosea pleads:
Shuvah Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha ‘Return, O Israel to the Eternal, your God’.

Interestingly the Haftorah for Shabbat Shuvah appears to have been chosen for calendrical reasons rather than because of a direct connection between it and parashat Vayelech. Nevertheless, the dying fears of Moses shared by God with him and Joshua appear to be fulfilled in the generation of Hosea. In Moses’ day the fear was a return to idolatry, the worship of physical things whereas by the time of Hosea the concern was the idolatry of hypocrisy, greed and social injustice.

As we approach the Day of Awe, Yom Kippur, what are our idols, concerning which we declare: ‘I have sinned; I will return?’

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