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Torah Sparks

September 22, 2012 – 6 Tishrei 5773

Annual: Deuteronomy 31:1 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim p. 1173; Hertz p. 887)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 31:1 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim p. 1173; Hertz p. 887)
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2 – 10; Joel 2:15 – 27; Micah 7:18 – 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1235; Hertz p. 891)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

Vayelech – the shortest Torah portion of the year – begins with Moses, ever the visionary leader, preparing his people for national continuity after his death. The Israelites need not fear – God will champion their cause. Joshua will assume national leadership. God reveals, though, that Israel will go astray after Moses’ death. Moses writes down God’s “teaching” – most likely, that is, the Deuteronomic law – which he delivers to the levitical priests. They are instructed to read the “teaching” to the assembled people Israel every seven years during Sukkot. This will serve to indoctrinate future generations, who, unlike the generation of the Exodus, did not experience God’s redemption and miracles personally. This will allow them to learn devotion to God and to embrace the covenant anew.

God also has Moses (possibly with Joshua’s assistance) write out a poetic message adjuring Israel to faithfulness. This poem is to be taught to the Israelites. The nation is convoked for this very purpose; Joshua is formally charged by his prophetic predecessor: “Be strong and resolute!” While the biblical text is somewhat ambiguous and subject to divergent readings, Moses’ written record of God’s teaching is placed beside the Ark of the Covenant for future consultation and testimony. From God’s command to Moses to “write this song,” the rabbis derive the final mitzvah of the Torah: for every Jew to write a Sefer Torah. (Instructively, the rabbis allow us to fulfill this divine imperative by appointing a scribe as our agent in such an undertaking, or by acquiring an appropriate personal library of sacred texts.)

The poem itself, comprising parashat Haazinu, is introduced with the final verse of parashat Vayelech: a covenantal cliff-hanger!

Theme #1: “Thank God I’m Old”

“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Lord said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2)

Study: Derash

“Even though Moses our Teacher was still strong and healthy, as attested by Scripture – ‘his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated’ (34:7) – he said these things to comfort the Israelites.” (Ramban)

“I am now one hundred twenty years old, so do not be distressed about my death, as it is not in accordance with the ways of nature that I should live longer.” (Sforno)

“’Be active…’ Rather, ‘exercise military leadership’ – literally, ‘come and go’ – the task at hand.” (Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

“May I suggest that man’s potential for change and growth is much greater than we are willing to admit, and that old age be regarded not as the age of stagnation but as the age of opportunity for inner growth. The years of old age… are indeed formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through in-bred self-deceptions, to deepen understanding and compassion, to widen the horizon of honesty, to refine the sense of fairness.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

“Many believe - and I believe - that I have been designated for this work by God. In spite of my old age, I do not want to give it up; I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in Him.” (Michelangelo)

“When you see the shape the world is in, When the way it is ain't what it's been, When folks just care for gold, Thank God, I'm old. When you take a gander at the news, When you hear the language people use, When no sweet songs are sung, I don't wanna be young.” (Michael Stewart, Barnum)

Questions for Discussion

Both Sforno and Ramban seem concerned that Moses’ statement in our parashah contradicts the Torah’s closing observation regarding the super-centenarian’s unabated vitality. Which is a more appealing depiction of Moses and his brand of leadership: Ramban’s assertion of his discreet self-effacement? Or Sforno’s claim that Moses was recognizing the extraordinary nature of his longevity and acknowledging his own mortality? How else might we understand his remarks? How does Professor Tigay’s more specific translation regarding the exercising of military leadership change the verse? Does this alone resolve the contradiction of Deuteronomy 34:7?

How does Heschel’s statement about old age (published posthumously) help to explain the timing of Moses’s prophetic career – begun at age 80 and lasting 40 years?

Compare Moses’ approach to “retirement” to that of Michelangelo (creator of arguably the most famous artistic depiction of Moses – the statue, including its unfortunate inclusion of horns on the law-giver’s head). Did Moses want to give up his work? Was Moses’ work motivated by love of God alone?

At what points in his leadership of the Israelite tribes might Moses have shared the sentiments conveyed by the musical “Barnum” cited above?

Theme #2: “You Make My Heart Sing”

“That day, Moses wrote down this poem (or “song”) and taught it to the Israelites.” (Deuteronomy 31:22)

Study: Derash

“Poems are preferable to prose… because most people forget the ordinary prose even if they repeat the words day and night… But if they are set to music, sung or played, they will always be remembered by means of their melodies… Poetry employs hyperbole and metaphor, to alter inner thoughts, and figurative language not to be taken literally as it is in real life… This is the essence of poetry.” (Don Isaac Abarbanel)

"The Torah and all its commandments... form a great and mighty Divine poem." (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook)

“I know now who I am. I m a Jew and I am a lovesong to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a praisesong to the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. That is all the 613 mitzvot are, the midrashim, the Talmud, the Torah, kashrut, tzedakah, and everything else in Judaism. They are lovesongs to HaShem. And so am I.” (Julius Lester)

“As long as the soul animates man, and longs for light and thirsts for beauty, man needs the fountain of poetry.” (Chaim Nachman Bialik)

“Judaism is the poetry in a Jew’s life.” (Rabbi A. Elihu Michelson)

“Each memorable verse of a true poet has two or three times the written content." (Alfred de Musset)

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history." (Plato)

“Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” (Carl Sandburg)

Questions for Discussion

How does Julius Lester’s description of Jewish observance – and of himself – as a “lovesong” to God differ from Rav Kook’s statement that the Torah and Mitzvot are “a great and mighty Divine poem”? Do both insights apply simultaneously?

How might Rav Kook (or Professor Lester) modify Bialik’s paean to poetry? Imagine Abarbanel, Plato, and de Musset sharing a conversation!! How might they explain God’s instruction to Moses to compose a poem in the closing chapters of the Torah? How might they understand Rabbi Michelson’s comment?

Carl Sandburg’s evocative and lyrical observation about poetry seems to apply to Jewish tradition with unique precision. How does Judaism synthesize “hyacinths and biscuits”? That is, how does our tradition infuse the ordinary, everyday, physical world into a vehicle for inspiration, elevated living, and ultimate meaning?

Abarbanel asserts that poetry is used to “alter inner thoughts.” How else does our tradition encourage us to achieve “altered states” in our quest for religious insight and spiritual experience? Might this, in part, explain the approaching fast of Yom Kippur?

Historic Note

Shabbat Shuvah, observed on September 22, 2012, takes its name from the opening words of the day’s special haftarah: “Shuvah Yisrael” – “Return, O Israel!” (Hosea 14:2). The prophet celebrates the human capacity to alter unproductive, if longestablished, patterns of behavior… and promises a bright national future to the People Israel in its Land. On September 25, 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin returned to Israel after concluding the Camp David Accords.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Among the acts of self-denial practiced on Yom Kippur is the prohibition against wearing leather shoes (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 511:1; Mishanah Yoma 8:1). Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin taught that “The body is like a shoe to the soul.” We thus symbolically remove our shoes to demonstrate our efforts to transcend our bodily needs on Yom Kippur, and so as to permit more direct spiritual communion with God. Rabbi Isaac Klein also explains this Yom Kippur practice: “The entire day serves as a vivid reliving of Temple days. Leather shoes were forbidden in holy places” (Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 210). Citing the Rema, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser (Judaism: Profile of a Faith, p. 170) states: “On the holiest day of the year we are to shed the symbol of our predatory nature, the shoes which were made from the skin of a living creature. Wearing shoes is generally permitted, but the permission is a tragic yielding to necessity, and on the holiest day of the year, according to Isserles, we ought to reach out for a higher moral standard.”

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