VAYELECH, Deuteronomy. 31:1-30
Navigation, whether by foot, in a car, aboard a boat, or while flying in a plane, involves at its heart three very simple determinations. You need to know where you are, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there.
So we find ourselves, just days into a new year, fresh from the celebration and introspection of Rosh Hashanah, still analyzing the deeds of the past year before the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur. Where have we been? Where are we now? Where are we going? How are we going to get there?
Prior to entering the Land of Israel, the Jews faced the same questions. And just as he was about to depart this world, Moses provided guidance by delivering the last two of the Torah’s 613 commandments. He spoke of the mitzvah of hakhel, of gathering the entire people every seven years for a mass reading of the Torah by the king, and about the requirement, as deduced by Maimonides, for every Jewish man to write a Torah scroll for himself.
The generation that entered the Holy Land did not have firsthand experience of Egypt, of the plagues and the Almighty’s outstretched arm that saved them. They did not witness the giving of the tablets on Sinai, and though they were raised during the years in the desert, much of Jewish nationhood was for them history.
Theirs was somewhat of a lost generation. And there they stood on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, knowing that the leader they had always known, Moses, would not be accompanying them into the land. The appointment of Joshua as his successor must have calmed a few nerves, but they were facing uncharted waters. They might have known where they were headed, but where they were coming from was a blur at best.
Just as thousands of years ago, we have the same antidote for the times when we feel lost. The first hakhel Torah reading signifies the foundational nature of Judaism. Where did we come from? From the nakedness of Egypt. Where are we going? To a land of milk and honey where our toil will reveal the holiness trapped in this physical world. How will we get there? Through trust, faith and living a Jewish life.
Maimonides writes that the hakhel gathering required each and every person to receive the Torah as if he was hearing it from Mount Sinai. But even such a reception would retain some vestiges of the past. That’s where the personal Torah scroll comes in. This last of the commandments — which many people fulfill in part by purchasing and writing a letter in a Torah scroll — testifies to the Torah’s power to exist on a personal plane, in the here and now, a living guidebook for the future.
Most years, the portion of Vayelech, whose name suggests movement, is read with the portion of Nitzavim, whose name indicates standing still. And while their names reference two competing ideas, the Jewish way is to synthesize them. Only by being rooted in the past can we accomplish the act of moving forward.
Just as the Almighty called out to Adam at the beginning of the Torah — “Where are you?” — we as a people face the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur asking the same question. Like our ancestors before us, who were empowered to bring holiness into the world, let’s answer the question with fortitude and resolve. Our way of life is not one for the history books, and Judaism is not solely focused on the present. Looking to the future, let’s educate our children, grow our institutions and complete the task bestowed on our ancestors so many years ago.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.