Parashat Vayelech opens with the following verse:
“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.” (Devarim 31:1)
The previous chapters do not indicate that Moshe had traveled anywhere that would require him to go to deliver this address. So the commentaries offer many answers to the question, “Where did Moshe come from and to where did he go?”
Some say that he went to the camp of each tribe, or even to the tent of every individual. Others say that he went to his own tent or to the mishkan. While there may be justifications for each of these explanations, none is convincing enough on its own to serve as the ultimate answer to the question.
An entirely different approach is taken by recent scholars, who analyzed ancient texts. Based on the ancient Greek translation in the Septuagint, as well as a fragment found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, these scholars claim that the opening word of the parasha should not be read vayelech, but rather vayechal (switching the order of the last two letters). This would mean the word would be translated as “completed”, rendering the verse, “And Moses finished speaking these words to all Israel.”
In addition to the evidence from those ancient texts, this version has a number of advantages. First of all, we find a very similar phrasing in the following chapter:
“And Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel” (Devarim 32:45)
Secondly, the verse makes sense in the context of the surrounding chapters. Instead of opening a new chapter, it should be considered the closing verse of Parashat Nitzavim. “These things” are the words spoken in the previous chapters.
That solution does appear tidy, but that may be the precise reason to reject it. There is a principle in textual analysis called “Lectio difficilior potior” – “the more difficult reading is the stronger.” It claims that if you have two versions of a text, the more unusual one is likely to be the original, since the scribes that copied would tend to replace odd phrases with more familiar ones. Following this principle, many have concluded that the version vayechal was a later correction by the composers of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So where does that leave us? I think the most persuasive suggestion is by Shadal, who essentially says that the phrase “Moshe went” is a figure of speech. We find it in English, where “went” does not refer to physically moving, as in “The cow went moo” or “He went through a phase.” Shadal gives a number of examples of this usage in biblical verses, such as Bereshit 26:13 – “The man prospered. He went and prospered until he became very great” and Shemot 19:19 – “The blare of the horn grew [lit. went] louder and louder.”
But if that is the case, what does the opening word add to the sentence at all? Why not just say that “Moshe spoke these things”?
I think an answer can be found by taking a close look at the verses that follow. Just as “went” is based on the verb “to walk”, so too are other action verbs given symbolic meaning. In Devarim 31:2, Moshe says, “Today I am 120 years old and I can no longer go out and come.” As Ibn Ezra points out, to “go out and come” is a metaphor for leading the troops into battle. At this point Moshe can no longer provide that kind of leadership, and Yehoshua, his successor, will take on that role.
But the verb halach has additional connotations. It often implies “to accompany”, as found twice in the verses in this speech: “God your Lord is the One who is going [holech] with you, and He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Devarim 31:6) and “But God will be the One who will go [holech] before you, and He will be with you” (Devarim 31:8).
It is true that Moshe cannot come and go. He can’t be there to lead the conquest of the Land. But just as God will go with them in the future, Moshe remains committed to the people in his final hours, will walk with them, and provide them with advice and words of encouragement: “Be strong and resolute” (Devarim 31:9).