Parashat Vayelech 5780

Rabbi Richard Jacobi – 4 October 2019

Shabbat Shuvah

This is the first Shabbat of an overlap period – we’ve begun the new year, but are still concluding the annual cycle of Torah readings, which will end and begin again at Simchat Torah. I have come to respect the lack of neatness implicit in this period – life is often overlapping, untidy, always imperfect.

This is a reality that is echoed and addressed in the Torah portion and in the Haftarot (yes, it is a plural this week!). I would suggest that one phrase dominates the single chapter of parshat Vayelechchazak ve-ematz – be strong and resolute. In the thirty verses of D’varim (Deuteronomy) 31, it appears three times. The first is to all the people, the second and third are to Joshua, Moses’ successor, and there is also a negative version “Fear not and be not dismayed” also addressed to Joshua.

What does it mean to be strong and resolute? In the Book of Deuteronomy, the overriding theme is one of urging the Jewish people to stay loyal to God and to the laws and rules of Judaism. In today’s language, I’d suggest that this might be re-worded as ‘keep firmly to a sound moral compass, no matter what turbulence might seek to push you away from it’.

One thing being strong and resolute does not mean is to be unchanging, dogmatic or… It takes more strength to change and update your thinking than it does to dig yourself further into holding on to comfortable opinions and mind-sets. Judaism has always absorbed new learning and wiser sensibilities over the centuries, and our Liberal Judaism seeks to continue that evolution.

Shabbat Shuvah is the name for this sabbath that occurs between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. ‘Shuvah’ is the first word passage from Hosea (14:2) that forms the Haftarah to be read according to the majority opinion. ‘Shuvah’ means ‘return’ and is an instruction to return to the Eternal One. I’d say this time is about re-calibrating our moral compass, admitting that we have strayed in some way or other from doing what is both right and good. For something to be right means that it is legal; for something to be good means that it is morally and ethically sound. The Supreme Court found unanimously that something cannot be legal if it is so obviously unethical / unconstitutional. They have, in their judgement, reminded all of us that the end does not justify the means, that we have to act well. We can only act well if our thoughts and our words are soundly conceived and sensitively delivered.

The chapter of Vayelech reminds us to ‘be strong and resolute’. Shabbat Shuvah and this season of repentance (teshuvah) call upon us to heed the shofar’s blasts and awake from our sleepwalking into bad or harmful ways. Return is not nostalgia for what is past, but urging to make sure we are not corrupting ourselves through what we read, hear, think or say. We must remember the wise laws and teachings of our heritage; we must renew our commitment to act in ways that are both right and good.

The opening verse of the minority opinion’s Haftarah (from Isaiah 55) encourages us to “Seek the Eternal while there is still time; call out while God is near.” It’s not too late for us or our world if we will rediscover our strength and resolve, and return. We will never be perfect, we are human; but we can approach Yom Kippur next week confident that we will be forgiven and can start afresh on a better path.

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