Parashat Vayelech and the Sabbath of Repentance
This first Shabbat of the new year of 5783 falls between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and is known as ‘Shabbat Shuva,’ the Sabbath of Repentance. It takes its name from the first verse of this Shabbat’s haftarah prophetic reading, from the book of Hosea, chapter 14: ‘Shuva, Return O Israel to Hashem your G-d.’
Yom Kippur begins this Tuesday evening, October 4th. On Rosh HaShana we did our best to truly acknowledge that only G-d is King. And now that we know who we are facing and we have hopefully internalized the reality of Hashem’s sole sovereignty, we can work on ourselves, and engage in wholehearted and sincere repentance, internalizing our need to improve in all those areas wherein we have been lacking as loyal subjects of the King, so that we will be found deserving of the final sealing in the Book of Life, on the awesome Day of Atonement.
During these ‘Ten Days of Repentance’ from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, we are given the chance to make amends for the entire past year, to fix all the days that we were not present in the moment, not focused on Hashem’s presence in our lives. We cry out every day in sincere repentance from the deepest place; we commit ourselves to action and positive change, and we endeavor to see ourselves, and each other, and the whole world, in a different light.
These are days of hyper focus on Hashem’s presence in our lives because more than anything, we never want to be disconnected from Him again. We want to live mindfully and take responsibility for ourselves. We try to rectify all the days that we were zoned out and insensitive. We try to make these the most real days of the year, by making every moment count.
Our Torah reading this week is parashat Vayelech. It’s the shortest portion in all of Torah, consisting of just 30 verses, chapter 31 of the book of Deuteronomy. The last four Torah portions of Deuteronomy, last week’s portion of Nitzavim, this week’s Vayelech, and the upcoming portions of Haazinu and Zot Ha’Bracha, were all given over by Moshe on the last day of his life. Knowing that these are the teachings of Moshe on his last day on this earth is so powerful to reflect upon, as we approach Yom Kippur. This is a time when we naturally find ourselves reflecting upon our own impermanence, not in a morbid way, but in a way that makes us realize on a deeper level, how much we need closeness to Hashem in our lives. And how important and precious is every moment.
Moshe’s entire life can be described by the opening word of this week’s portion, ‘Vayelech’ – ‘and Moshe went.’ Today’s portion, spoken on the day that is both his 120th birthday and the last day of his life, begins with ‘And Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel.’ The same word was used to describe his birth into this world, back in the book of Exodus: ‘ A man went from the house of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi’ (Ex. 2:1).
Moshe’s life reminds us never to get stuck; he is a perfect example of never remaining stationary spiritually, but constantly striving for perfection. He was well aware of his own limitations, yet he was always moving forward and advancing from level to level. He was intensely aware of the fact that this was to be his last day in this world. Yet despite this, with great energy he goes to strengthen Joshua in his mission. He also gives over to Israel the last two commandments, and continues his words of rebuke, while blessing and guiding the people.
This is such an apropos reminder for us as we enter the new year. On his last day on earth Moshe, with full knowledge that this is his final day, ‘Vayelech Moshe’, he keeps on going, moving forward, and teaching all of Israel to strive for closeness to Hashem.
The opportunity for true ‘teshuva’ – return – beckons to us, and we must not allow our past mistakes to cripple us. We are aware of our own limitations. But at the same time we must not underestimate our capabilities and strengths.
Maimonides teaches us that during these Ten Days of Repentance, each person should view himself as a ‘beinoni,’ meaning someone walking the delicate balance of the middle ground…neither righteous or wicked. This thought motivates a person to appreciate the value of every single mitzvah, each positive deed that one performs…perhaps this is the merit that I need to tip the scales of justice in my favor; conversely, one negative action – another ‘sin’ – may be the deciding factor in my fate. On a deeper level, this idea of ‘viewing oneself as being in the middle’ also means that on the one hand, I recognize my faults and weaknesses; but at the same time, I am well aware of my positive points. Like Moshe, I must see to it that I am continuously moving forward; I must strive for excellence in my behavior, in my relationships and sensitivity to others; in every aspect of my walk with Hashem in this world. I must never be satisfied or complacent with being in the middle.
Hashem helps us to draw close to Him. When we take one step towards Hashem, He promises to reciprocate. He is like a lover who promises He will never let go His love. He pulls us towards Him if we make the first move. Elul taught us that if I make that first move, If ‘I am to my beloved’, then ‘my beloved is to me’, and as He tells us through the propht Malachi, ‘Return to Me, and I will return to you.’
Gmar Chatima Tova, may we be sealed in the Book of Life for a Good and Sweet New Year.