Parshat Vayelech: Never Stop Walking

“He (Moshe) said to them: I am now 120 years old, I can no longer come and go; Moreover, the Lord has said to me, “You shall not cross the Jordan,” (Devarim 31,2).

Have you ever been with someone near the end of their life? I had the great merit to spend time with my late Uncle Dave during his last days as he was dying of cancer. He was a large man with lots of brown bushy curly hair, and he had a booming voice that filled the room. But as I sat with him in the basement of his home, which had been transformed into his hospice bed, all the rough edges of his personality melted away. I held his hand and looked into his deep blue eyes, and I saw sadness and pain. But I also saw absolute clarity. He told me that none of the degrees or awards on the walls surrounding him mean anything to him now. All that mattered was family. At the end, the people in his life who he loved most were the only thing that mattered to him.

We have walked with Moshe through the last four books of the Chumash, and at long last we have reached the end of his life. In fact, the beginning of our parsha is the beginning of the end for Moshe, as the last three parshiot in the Torah are the words of Moshe on his very last day on Earth. For Moshe too, his concern is for the people that he loves most, for the nation that he took out of Egypt and brought through the desert. 

When we say that “there was none other in Israel like Moshe,” it applies to more than his prophecy. Moshe was the redeemer, the spiritual leader, the giver of the Torah, the head of the top court, the top general in the army, the project manager of the tabernacle, and the admin of the priests. There was no aspect of communal life that Moshe did not guide. So on Moshe’s last day, he is concerned for his nation. He is not only concerned because he sees failure in their future; he is concerned for the day after. Who will fill the vacuum when he leaves the world?

Moshe offers the nation encouragement and explains how the void will be filled, both from above and below.

“Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them; for the Lord your God Himself marches with you: He will not fail you or forsake you,” (Devarim 31,6).

Your relationship to God is not dependent on me, Moshe tells the nation. Do not fear the path ahead, for just as God has been with you up until now, so too God will continue to protect and guide you.

Then Moses called Yehoshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them,“ (Devarim 31,7).

The multiple leadership roles that Moshe played will be taken over by the most capable amongst the nation, Yehoshua.  And in order to strengthen Moshe’s words of encouragement, Moshe and Yehoshua appear together at the Tent of Meeting, the place where Moshe goes to hear the voice of God. A pillar of cloud, representing the Divine Presence, rests at the entrance of the tent. The story of God and Am Yisrael will continue on without Moshe.

But there is a powerful personal message in these words as well. The great Chassidic Master Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin points out that our parsha begins with a strange word: vayelech, he (Moshe) went. Where was Moshe going? He’s been standing and talking to the nation the whole time!

Moshe was taking his last walk, so to speak. During his life, he was always walking, i.e. actualizing potential. But now he is no longer able to “come and go,” i.e. now, at the end, he can neither climb nor fall. And because he cannot fall, he can no longer climb. This is his last walk. 

Moshe teaches that walking, i.e. growing, is the essential quality of the human being. This includes falling just as much as climbing, maybe more so. There must always be action and movement. To be static is not to be human. So Moshe says to the nation, “Though I can longer climb or fall, you can. We must always keep walking until our time in this world is done.”

Though Moshe is known as Eish Elokim, the man of God, he is not an angel who stands on one static spiritual platform. In his last moments, he is revealing his humanity, his vulnerability, and his strongest encouragement. No matter what the future holds for you as individuals and a nation, you must keep walking. You must keep striving. You will fall; but that also means you can climb, since you can’t have one without the other. And though the future might be uncertain, as long as you walk, you’ll always be on the right path.

What do you think? What are some of the personal lessons you’ve learned from your fall? What is a greater teacher, our successes, or our failures?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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