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The tales we must tell ourselves (Vayelech)

In the final moments of his life, Moses demonstrates how to mobilize for the repentance that Shabbat Shuvah inspires
Illustrative. 'Moses' Testament and Death,' by Luca Signorelli, 1481-2. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. 'Moses' Testament and Death,' by Luca Signorelli, 1481-2. (Wikipedia)

In Parshat Vayelech, Moses, who knows he is about to die, is at a defining moment – he has recently outlined curses that will befall the people if they abandon God, and he has minimal time left on earth to mobilize not only the people before him, but also scores of future generations, to enduringly seek God and the Torah. A daunting task at best.

The steps Moses takes to mobilize the people in the final moments of his life are similar to steps outlined in a leadership practice called “public narrative,” designed by Professor Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Professor Ganz coaches leaders worldwide to inspire collective action by speaking to the collective about stories of the self (the leader), us (the collective), and now (the urgency of acting right now).

Ganz finds roots for this practice from the subjects of Hillel the Sage’s famous reflective questions:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? (Self)

But if I am only for myself, what am I? (Us)

And if not now, when?” (Now)

— Pirkei Avot 1:14

During the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the 10 Days of Repentance, we too are in the midst of a defining moment, as we read in the High Holiday U-Netanah Tokef prayer (Ashkenaz):

On Rosh Hashanah [our fate] will be inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur [our fate] will be sealed.

Just like Moses, we must engage in mobilizing towards action — as Moses mobilized a people to connect to God and Torah, we must mobilize ourselves to seek atonement for our sins. Through learning how Moses applied the framework of “self,” “us,” and “now” to motivate Israel, we too can use this method to start to develop our own reflective framework for approaching our repentant process.

The Story of Self

A seminal way that Moses inspires the people to cling to the Torah is with God’s instruction of teaching the people a part of the Torah as a shirah, a song that they must “set” to their “hearts” (Deuteronomy 32:46). The full text of this song is found in 43 verses of Parshat Ha’azinu. In this way, Moses instructs individuals to not only relate to the Torah as something external to them, but also literally, at least in part, as music they must safeguard inside themselves. Moses teaches the people to regard the Torah as part of their inner individual being, a part of their identities, a part of their story of self.

The Story of Us

Moses also recognizes the value of people identifying the Torah with formative collective “us” encounters. Moses instructs the people to gather together every seven years to hear a public reading of the Torah. This mitzvah of Hakhel is reminiscent of the original communal gathering of the people when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. In this way, Moses sets up a perpetual experiential renewal for the Jewish people of one of the most defining moments of their collective shared history that keeps God and the Torah at its center. Moses conveys his hope that the re-establishment every seven years of this story of us will help the people to “keep and obey all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31:12).

The Story of Now

Moses recognizes that the people will listen more acutely to his instructions if they understand the urgency of his message. He conveys this urgency by sharing that he will soon no longer be their leader: “I am 120 years old today, I can no longer go out and come in, for God has said to me ‘You shall not cross the Jordan’” (Deuteronomy 31:2).

Moses then publicly begins the transfer of leadership to his successor, Joshua: “And Moses called unto Joshua, and said unto him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt go with this people into the land…’” (Deuteronomy 31:7).

By publicly announcing his imminent departure and publicly beginning the transfer of leadership, Moses conveys to the people that his teachings surrounding the shirah and Hakhel are to be regarded as a most pressing story of now.

Through the transmission of stories of “self,” “us,” and “now,” Moses seeks before his death to mobilize the people to permanently affix the primacy of the Torah and their relationship with God to their eternal identity, values and actions.

Shabbat Shuvah

Just as Moses sought to urgently mobilize the people in Parshat Vayelech, we on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seek to urgently motivate ourselves to engage in a repentant process.

We learn from the High Holiday U-Netanah Tokef prayer that: “Teshuvah, tefilah, u-tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-gezerah” — repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of a (negative) decree. Examining teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah from a “self,” “us,” and “now” lens can offer us new ways to approach this repentance process.

Teshuvah (repentance): Self.  In teshuvah, each individual focuses on themselves. The individual engages in self-examination, self-reflection, expresses remorse for his or her errant ways, and undertakes to do and be better.

Moses in Parshat Vayelech conveys how one can relate to part of the Torah as a song carried inside them. Can I, on Shabbat Shuvah, envision myself as this carrier of a divine shirah, as a being with music of the Torah playing inside of me? And can I then consider what acts of teshuvah would help me compose more beautiful and harmonious melodies?

Tzedakah (charity): Us.  In engaging in tzedakah, we see ourselves as part of a larger collective and take responsibility for giving of ourselves and our resources to those around us.

Moses imparted upon us the importance, through Hakhel, of continually receiving the Torah as a collective. Can we, on Shabbat Shuvah, envision ourselves as part of this collective who stood together at Mount Sinai and Hakhel? What ways through tzedakah can we help those with whom we shared this awe-inspiring experience? Can we use the experience of being part of a collective to inspire us to give more to all of humanity, with whom we share the largest possible “story of us”?

Tefilah (prayer): Now. Engaging in tefilah centers our thoughts on the primacy of our current relationship with the Divine. When we engage in prayer, we announce to ourselves that in this moment, the “now” of being part of this relationship takes precedence over all other things.

Just as Moses utilized words to express the urgency of the shirah and Hakhel, can we, on Shabbat Shuvah, harness the power of our liturgical words to urgently focus on seeking atonement and repentance? Can the words of U-Netanah Tokef (“…be-Yom Tzom Kippur yechateymun” — “on the fast of Yom Kippur [our fate] will be sealed”) galvanize our attention for this pressing task? Can the liturgical recollection of the Yom Kippur Temple service remind us of the historical power of this current moment in time? Can the sound of the shofar at the end of the service awaken us “now” to our individual and collective potential?

May we all find meaningful pursuits of repentance, and may all of our stories of “self,” “us,” and “now” be written and sealed this year in the Book of Life.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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