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Parashat Vayelekh - Shabbat Shuvah
September 19, 2015 – 6 Tishrei 5776

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

Moses officially transfers his position of leadership to Joshua. Moses writes down the Teaching and tells the people to read it publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. God assures Moses that the Israelites inevitably will break the covenant and that God will hide God’s presence from them. Moses is asked to write a poem to teach the Israelites of this likelihood. Moses relays God’s prediction to the people, and prepares to recite the poem along with Joshua.

Theme #1: Hide and Seek

Then my anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, "Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us." Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. (Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

Perhaps an absent God is a scarier proposition than an angry God.

Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no. Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. … -- Time Magazine, April 8, 1966

“I will conceal my face” as if I do not see their distress. -- Rashi on 31:17

The gematria of the final letters of [this verse: 95] is equal to that of the name Haman. This is in accordance with what our Sages have expounded in the Talmudic tractate Hulin: The phrase “but I will surely have concealed” (Deuteronomy 31:18) is an allusion to Queen Esther. -- Ba’al HaTurim

Questions for Discussion:

The famous Time article from almost 50 years ago is bandied about today, perhaps more than ever, considering the surveys which indicate growing numbers of atheists and agnostics in the United States. Do committed Jews have a responsibility to talk openly about the place that God has in their lives? Is it essential for them to emphasize that Judaism considers many views of God to be valid? Can a legitimate Jewish struggle to understand God include pondering whether there is a God at all?

Rashi claims that, in the scenario described in our portion, God's face will be hidden not only so that people won't be able to sense God's presence, but also so that God won't see the harrowing fate of the people. Does this threat depict God as passive-aggressive? Does it depict God as particularly harsh? Or does it seem to be a threat commensurate with the people's lack of faith and obedience?

Ba'al HaTurim connects the threat in this verse with the story of Purim. Is the book of Esther a reasonable example of God turning away from the Jewish people? Might it help explain why God's name is not written in the book? If this is a good analogy, is it fair to say that God is teaching modern generations to solve our own problems rather than waiting for God to swoop in and save the day? 

Theme #2: Parchment-back Writer

When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching to the very end, Moses charged the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, saying: Take this book of Teaching and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and let it remain there as a witness against you. (Deuteronomy 31:24-26)

God's written word provides not only instruction for future generations, but testimony for generations that disobey God's will.

Oral tradition alone is not enough. Memory is not only to be “in their mouths” but also to be written “on your hand.” The Lord instructs Moses directly to “Write this for a memorial in a book.” Along the way, “Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” on the mountain, inscribed “the words of this law in a book,” and not only wrote down the words of a song but “taught it to the children of Israel”. To his long list of roles, Moses can, then, add “song leader” and “social director.” -- Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

The only place in Deuteronomy where direct claims are articulated of Moses’ having acted as a scribe is in 31:24-25 where Moses is reported as writing the words of “this law” (or “this teaching” or “this torah”) on a scroll, and the scroll is placed in the ark of the covenant. The definite “this” is unambiguous. It refers to the material Moses has just been giving to the Chosen People in his long speeches. Some of it is already written down (as reported in Deut. 30:10), which implies that Moses is reading from a scroll already in existence and now he writes down the rest of what he has been telling the people. Therefore, in total, all that is being suggested about Moses as author is that he recorded something about the children of Israel in the wilderness and that he wrote out parts of the teachings that are found in Deuteronomy. It is not a strong case for ascribing the first five books of the scriptures to Moses … -- Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Banaah: The Torah was given in separate scrolls, for David declared, “Then I said, I, who am alluded to in a scroll in the book of Torah, am come” (Psalms 40:8). But Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The Torah was given as [one] sealed [book], for it is said, “[When Moses had finished writing the words of this Torah in a book, to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites], ‘Take this book of Torah.’” -- Gittin 60a 

Questions for Discussion:

Wildavsky depicts Moses as doing everything in his power to ensure that the Israelites would understand God's expectations, and not just expect them to remember all the words of a long speech. When we present ideas for an audience, what are the best ways for us to ensure those present will take them to heart? Are visual presentations and hands-on activities necessary to supplement oral lessons? Does this mean that congregations ought to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the sermon as the best way to teach Torah to its parishioners?

Akenson challenges the notion that Moses wrote down every word of the Torah, as much of rabbinic literature would have us believe. Whether or not we believe that all the words of the Torah were communicated literally by God, should it matter whose hand actually transmitted them into print? Do your thoughts on Moses's role in the writing of the Torah impact your understanding of him as a leader of Israel and a prophet of God?

Gittin notes that even the format of the written Torah is unclear, and that it is possible that each book of the Torah may have been written down in separate scrolls. Would seeing each book of the Torah as an individual entity change the way we see the respective philosophies of each book? Is it worthwhile to compare and contrast, say, the books of Exodus and Numbers? What lessons might we learn from such an exercise?

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