Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Vayelech: Passing the Leadership to Yehoshua

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Held Back By Hashem, Not Age

Parashat Vayelech is the shortest in the Torah, so these Rashis might come in a narrower range than usual. 31;2 speaks of Moshe’s imminent demise, his telling the people thatלא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבא, I can no longer go out and return. Rashi dismisses the possibility that those words indicate a diminution of his physical capabilities, since 34;7 tells us his eyes and strength never left him.

He was telling the Jews he was no longer able to rule over them as that right had been given to Yehoshua. Alternatively, Rashi says that he meant it about Torah, his special connection to the wellsprings of wisdom had been removed from him, since he was on his way to the next world.

Yehoshua Above or With the Elders

In 31;7, Moshe tells Yehoshua כי אתה תבוא את העם הזה, you will come with this nation, whereas verse 23 has Moshe telling Yehoshua כי אתה תביא, for you will bring this nation. Rashi assumes the latter case was Moshe speaking in Hashem’s Name, I think because he says it to Yehoshua in the course of a section that started with Hashem speaking to Moshe, and a verse before the Torah refers to Moshe’s completing the writing of Ha’azinu. That’s a prophetic context, implying that that time that he spoke to Yehoshua, it was a direct command from Hashem.

However Rashi came to that, he notes that the first example spoke of a collaborative relationship, Yehoshua entering the Land with the people, which Rashi infers to mean that Yehoshua should see the elders as partners, who will give him the benefit of their wisdom, ideas, and counsel. Hashem in the later verse reminded Yehoshua of his power, that he could and should exert his authority as the sole final ruler of the people.

They both appear in the Torah, both are true, reminding us that leaders take different tacks at different times. Sometimes — perhaps Moshe presents the human perspective — collaboration is the way, to seek advice, and fashion a course of action that incorporates that advice.

But Hashem points out what some can forget, that there also has to be a final decider, the buck must indeed stop somewhere. Yehoshua would come to Israel with the elders, but he also had to bring them there, had to have the confidence to assert his leadership as he himself brought them to the Land, and guided them on how to conquer and acquire it.

Mitzvah of Hakhel

This has been a shemittah year, so the Torah’s description of Hakhel resonates more than usual. 31;10 dates the observance to מקץ שבע שנים, at the end of seven years, במועד שנת השמיטה, at the time of the shemittah, on Sukkot. Rashi explains that it’s the Sukkot of the next year, the first year of the next shemittah. It’s still referred to as shemittah because many crops’ harvesting season carries over into the next year, leaving the laws in place until the end of the last harvesting season for any crop that started growing in the shemittah year.

We are told to read “this Torah.” Rashi explains that the king would start at the beginning of Devarim, standing on a wooden platform constructed for this event, in the courtyard of the Temple. Note the deliberate blurring of church and state, in that this religious ceremony, instituted to ensure that Jews remind themselves, periodically, of essential truths of the Torah, puts the king front and center. Not the High Priest nor the head of the Sanhedrin. That’s a difference between a theocratic monarchy and other forms of government.

The Song of Torah

Verse 19 refers to writing down השירה הזאת, this song, the source of the obligation to write a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. Without getting into technicalities of the mitzvah, I note that Rashi (and others) understands the reference to שירה, Song, as being to Ha’azinu. Only because we are not allowed to write parts of Torah without writing the whole, we have to write the entire Torah.

For those who hold this way, our obligation to write Torah scrolls (and, for later authorities, such as Rosh and maybe Sefer HaChinuch, to ensure we have a sufficient library to involve ourselves in Torah study) stems from our need to have an intimate awareness of Ha’azinu, a Song that the next verse tells us will bear witness against us in the future. Rashi explains that in the course of those brief verses, Moshe Rabbenu warned us about the structure of Jewish history, when we will be given bounty and when we will be punished.

Part of the effectiveness of Ha’azinu depends on what the last phrase of this verse promises,כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו, for it will not be forgotten from its descendants, which Rashi translates into a promise that Torah will never be completely forgotten by the Jewish people. As long as we have that Torah, we have the hope to absorb the lessons of Ha’azinu, and see our way to the bountiful lives Hashem seeks to give us.

The Connection with a Disciple

Verse 29 expresses Moshe’s certainty that the Jews would go astray after his death. That implies that it would be immediately after his death, whereas Yehoshua 24;31 tells us that the Jews served Hashem all of Yehoshua’s days.

An obvious answer would be that Moshe did not mean immediately after, but Rashi says instead that a teacher’s student is as dear to the teacher as he himself. All the time Yehoshua was alive, in Moshe’s prophetic vision, it was as if he himself were still alive, at least regarding this prediction about the Jews’ coming failure.

As we head for Ha’azinu (and the completion of this series), this Rashi leaves us with a reminder that for some of us, even after we’re gone, we’re not gone. Because we leave behind those who continue our legacy, sometimes so faithfully that it can feel as if we haven’t fully left this world.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.