Elchanan Poupko

Vayelech: An Army or a School?

Art: Alex Levin (

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same”, wrote American author Flavia Weedn. No experience embodies this description like Moses saying goodbye to the Jewish people. The end of the book of Deuteronomy is very much focused on the big picture. It is the greatest transition the Jewish people have seen yet, even greater than transitioning out of Egypt. Moses is about to leave. Forever.

Moses called Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous! For you shall come with this people to the land which the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them. And you shall apportion it to them as an inheritance.

Yet in all the big talk, we suddenly get some very detailed commandments.

While keeping an eye on the big picture, Moses commands the Jewish people to gather—once in seven years—and hear the words of the Torah following the Sabbatical year. The Torah is not going to let this one be a bit picture commandment and does not spare details in the description. “At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release, When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears.”

Like a wedding invitation, details on time and location are not spared. It is made crystal clear. There is no ambiguity as to who is invited either.  “Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities” Again, it is as clear as ever: all must attend. No exceptions.

The Torah does not stop with the logistics, it makes sure to outline the objectives in the clearest of ways and says that this is all ”in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess”

Why? Why does the Torah invest so much in the small details? How is it possible that Moses, who is standing on the verge of death, is concerning himself with the attendance at an event which will take place only decades after he dies during this time? Why were these words chosen to be one of his last words?

To understand this, we must turn to the year 1960, when Israel’s President Zalman Shazar visited the United States and addressed more than eight hundred Jewish and Zionist leaders.

JTA reported back then:

“[Shazar] warned American Jews Sunday that they are faced with another “half of a lost generation” because more than 50 percent of its youth lacks a knowledge of Judaism, particularly Hebrew literature, both ancient and modern. [Shazar] said: “One cannot help noting that while large numbers have been drawn into the Jewish educational system, a larger part remain outside the Jewish schools.

“If the conscientious part of American Jewry,” he continued, “has endeavored to make up for a lost generation in the past by loyalty to Jewish values and traditions, the pain must be all the deeper that notwithstanding such endeavors we observe with nonchalance that in our days another half of a generation is being lost… through ignorance of Hebrew culture and Jewish values.”

The message is clear: be brave, God can help you win wars,” The Lord He is the One Who goes before you; He will be with you; He will neither fail you, nor forsake you. Do not fear, and do not be dismayed.”(Ibid). You must fight for the future of education. You must fight to pass the message on to future generations.

There are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah, this week’s Torah reading contains the final one; the 613th mitzvah.  The Mitzvah to write a Torah scroll. “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” Perpetuating the lessons of the past, making scripture available for all, perpetuating high literacy in the words which have made us into who we are, must be of our highest priority.

Following the terrible years of the Holocaust, America’s leading authority on Jewish law, Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895-1986), was approached several times by people who wanted to write Torah scrolls in memory of lost communities or family members. Since many Torah scrolls were already available, Rabbi Feinstein urged those people to take the large sum of money required for writing a Torah and give it towards Yeshivot, Day Schools, and other Jewish educational institutions. If there is no one to study from the Torah scroll, it is not of much use. Jewish education is the heart and soul of the Jewish people and all efforts must go in that direction.

When thinking of the 613th commandment—to write a Torah scroll and perpetuate Jewish education—it is hard not to think of the very first commandment in the Torah: be fruitful and multiply. As Moses prepares to depart from the Jewish people, he teaches us the greatest secret to our survival: pass the message along. Fight for education. Fight for Jewish literacy. “Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities”, everyone must be included. As Lord Jonathan Sacks has famously said: “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilization, you need schools… Jews became the people who predicated their survival on the house of study. Their heroes were teachers, and their citadels, schools.”

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
Related Topics
Related Posts