Thoughts on Parshat Vayelekh

Moses does not go gentle into that good night

The Israelites descend from ‘seeing’ G-d to merely ‘fearing’ G-d

(A  note of apology: If what you read here seems a bit confusing, this reflects the confusion I am left with after reading this parsha which I find circumlocuitous, inconsistent, and ultimately depressing. – jjg)

“Vayelekh Moshe, vayedaber et hadvarim ha-eleh  el kol Yisrael”
And Moses went, and he spoke these words to all of Israel (Deut 31:1)

This week’s parsha, Vayelekh , begins cryptically and devolves into some very mixed messaging.

For openers, the word “vayalekh” seems not only superfluous but incomprehensible.  Why does this parsha, which continues from Nitzavim — where Moses is standing before the entire assembly of Israel — begin with “And Moses went”? Where exactly did he go?  Were the Israelites suddenly transported to a different location?  More to the point,  ‘going’ implies departure, yet the entire parsha is replete with references to Moses not merely speaking to the Israelites but speaking directly into their ears.

Can it be that this “vayelekh” is more of an emotional and psychological departure? That Moses is mouthing what may be the right words but no longer connecting to the reality on the ground?  Has he become a lame duck leader who, sensing his imminent exit from the stage of history, is addressing his flock in a perfunctory if not outright discombobulated manner?

Or could it be that he is simply disgusted with the Children of Israel, and this pent up bitterness makes him ‘walk’ away emotionally while leaving behind a mixed message, and worse yet, what is to become a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy?

Indeed, in the second verse  he says “…  ben-meah v’esrim shana anhohi hayom lo ukhal od latzet v’lavo, v’Ad-onai amar elai lo taavor et haYarden hazeh (Deut 31:2). He is first stating that due to his age he no longer has the energy to come and go, and only then tells them that G-d will not allow him to cross the Jordan.  The superfluous word “od” — more — reflects his waning physical strength which, of itself, would render G-d’s order not to cross the river unnecessary.

Moses then proceeds “to write this Torah and he gave it to the kohanim”(31:9).  Yet later on he delivers  a strange speech that he refers to inexplicably as a “poem” (hashira hazot – 31:19).  Yes this “shira” is actually the entire Torah. But the Torah in toto, while containing some fine examples of verse, is not primarily a poem. And this parsha especially lacks any hint of poetry.  And this second Torah (but more likely it the same as the first Torah he writes in verse 9) — this poem — he again gives to the Levites to place in the Ark as a testimony against the Israelites.

At times Moses offers seemingly powerful words of encouragement:  once to the Israelites  and twice to Joshua he uses  the words ‘hazak v’ematz’ and its variant ‘hizku v’imtzu’ (be strong and courageous – 31:5, 7,33) telling the Israelites “The Lord your G-d passes before you, he will destroy these nations in front of you and you will dispossess them” (31:3)  and then follows in the same sentence with the non sequitur; “Joshua, he will go over before you as G-d has declared”.  Does one perhaps note an echo of bitterness if not sarcasm in the second half of this verse?  Yes, perhaps G-d has anointed Joshua, but Moses remains a bit skeptical about his successor?

But then G-d calls Moses and Joshua for a conference in the Tabernacle: “And G-d appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the tent” (31:15). This may be the very last time that G-d manifests himself visibly before the Children of Israel.

The period of “seeing” miracles is about to end. Upon entering the Promised Land the evidence of sight will be replaced by the secondary and vastly less compelling sense of hearing. In verse 11 a tremendous, and unnoticed, transition takes place from a period in which one saw the Divine presence to one in which one can only hear what has been handed down.   During the Sabbatical year, seven years after entering the Promised Land  “When all of Israel comes to see the face of the Lord your G-d in the place that will be chosen, you will read this Torah before all of Israel in their ears … that they may learn and fear (v’yar’u) the Lord your G-d (31:11-12).

Note that the Israelites when anticipating a meeting with G-d, will in the future only hear “in their ears”, not see with their eyes.  And “vayir’u “( and they will see) now becomes  “v’yar’u” (and they will fear).  Both words have the same spelling, but vastly different meanings. Seeing G-d is replaced with fearing G-d. Witnessing miracles is replaced with hearing about them.  And yet, the expectations of adherence and fidelity remain the same despite a vastly changed reality, and reduced sensory experience.

“And Ad-onai tells Moses, you are about to lay with your fathers; and this people will rise and go astray after the gods of the strangers in the land into whose midst he comes, and he will abandon me and violate my covenant which I made with him.” (31:16).  To call this a troubling verse is an understatement. To begin with, it refers to the Israelites in the third person singular, i.e. that they will all go astray as one, no exceptions. This would make them even worse than the citizens of Sodom who may have had as many as nine righteous men in their midst.  Here, where G-d finally refers to the Jewish People as a single whole, it is in the context of their predicted iniquity. And here, too, we have two completely disconnected phrases that are forced to coexist in a single sentence. After all, what does Moses’ body lying with his ancestors have to do with the prediction of Israelite treachery?  What’s more, this verse tells us that Moses is going to be buried with his fathers, which is simply untrue.  Quite the contrary. Unlike the remains of Joseph that were going be interred in the sacred soil of Israel not far from his forefathers and foremothers, Moses would be consigned to an unmarked grave on an alien mountaintop.

Can Moses’ bitterness over his fate motivate the absoluteness of his prediction, ostensibly from G-d, that the Israelites will mess things up?

It is at this point that G-d supposedly orders Moses “to write this poem and teach it to the Children of Israel, and place it in their mouths, so that this poem may be a witness before Israel” (31:19). Although he has seemingly done precisely this earlier in verse 9, Moses obeys “and teaches it to the Children of Israel “(31:32), at which point he once again flip flops back into a positive mode; “And he commanded Joshua son of Nun, and he told him be strong and courageous because you will bring the Children of Israel to the land I promised them and I will be with you” (31:33)strange words indeed for a man who has been passed over and is about to pass on.

Moses now command the Levites to carry  “this Sefer Torah”  in the Ark of the Covenant  where “it will be for a witness against you” (31:26) “because I know your rebellion and your stiff neck  because you have been rebellious against G-d  while I was still alive with you, how much more so after my death” (31:27). One would have imagined a more positive reason to transport the Torah in the Ark of the Covenant. Surely the Torah is not meant purely as negative reinforcement?

In sum, it seems that the positive words Moses utters are what G-d instructs him to say. At the same time, Moses appears incapable of reining in the personal bitterness of the lion in winter. Hence, he predicts with ferocious certitude that the Jews will make a mess of things. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as a child whose parent or teacher continually browbeat him with predictions that he will end up “no good”, “a failure”, “a criminal”, “a bum” tends to live up to his pedagogue’s dire expectations.  One can only imagine how things might have turned out had Moses’ parting words been infused with greater love and optimism.