Vayelech “He went” Deuteronomy 31: 1 – 30
Isaiah 55: 6 – 56: 8; Romans 10:14-21; 12:14-21
Moshe formally gathered the children of Israel together to ratify their covenant with Yahweh. He then pleads with the people to choose life – the path of obedience to the Torah and the commandments of Yahweh. If they would do so, they would be blessed and prosper; but if not, they would be cursed with exile, persecution, and the threat of utter destruction. Then he said to them, “I am one hundred and twenty years old today, and can no longer go forth and come in.”
Yahweh had confirmed that he was soon to die and Y’hoshua (Joshua) was to be ordained as his successor to lead the people successfully into the Promised Land across the Jordan river. In the presence of the entire assembly, Moshe urged Y’hoshua to be strong and courageous and to place his full trust in Yahweh.
Moshe then committed the Law to write and deliver it to the kohanim (priests) for safekeeping. He then commanded that after Israel was safely in the land, the law should be publicly recited to all of Israel during the festival of Sukkot every seven years, in order that “they may hear and learn to fear Yahweh your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.”
From Moshe to Y’hoshua
At 120 years old, he is ready to pass on the mantle of leadership and responsibility to Y’hoshua , his faithful servant before his death. He reminds the people that because of Yahweh’s punishment, he himself will not accompany them, but that Y’hoshua will lead them into the land promised to them. His encouragement to be strong and reliant on the protection of the Almighty, despite the seeming opposition ahead, is typical of this most famous leader of Isra’el. Of the 120 years that Moshe lived, a better part of his last third was spent in encouraging this young nation to press on to the greatness that Yahweh had called them into.
At this point in his life, and in the lives of the people, this compassionate servant of Yahweh knew that they needed to hear this type of message, and that the only one suitable for delivering it to them was himself. The fact that he publicly admonishes Y’hoshua to leadership, was also a very wise and necessary administrative action. When the people witnessed this passing of the “mantle of responsibility” between these two great leaders (one already proven in faithful service, while the other possessing great potential), it reaffirmed to Isra’el, the confidence that Moshe had in Y’hoshua. It served at a visible statement to let the people know that “Since you trusted me, and I trust Y’hoshua, then you can trust him also”.
Yahweh himself then summons the two men into the Tent of Meeting to commission Y’hoshua as Moshe’s successor, for the official transfer of leadership and change of command from the outgoing commander who gives the “troops” his final challenge, to his successor, the incoming commander, and encourages them to the same loyalty and trust that they have shown him.
The Reward for Faithful Service
Y’hoshua has been the faithful servant of Moshe for nearly forty-years. His service goes back to his youth: “Then Y’hoshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moshe from his youth, said, “Moshe, my lord, restrain them” (Numbers 11:28). Y’hoshua serves first for many years as the military leader as seen in the war against Amalek (Exodus 17:13); at this point he appears as the disciple of the leader. Y’hoshua is the first to greet Moshe as he descends from the mountain, and it appears that he, in fact, waited for Moshe throughout the forty days at the very limits of the border which marked the extent to which he was permitted to approach (Exodus 24:12-13). Then, after Moshe isolates himself outside of the camp, we are told: “Y’hoshua ben-Nun – the lad did not move from inside the tent.” The Torah is actually showing us here why Y’hoshua is chosen later on to replace Moshe. He had been a faithful, as well as a loyal and committed disciple of Moshe and walked perfectly before Yahweh. He was the natural extension of his great teacher.
Moshe knew God face to face and Y’hoshua had seen him live, breathe, and walk the Torah. The Torah lived within Moses and in turn, Moses lived out the Torah before Israel and it bore fruit in Y’hoshua’s life. Apart from Caleb, he was the only one of the original generation to go into the land. Having been tried and tested in the wilderness wanderings, he was a worthy and able vessel to lead the new generation to take the land as their inheritance.
Y’hoshua was one of the twelve spies, along with Caleb, who came back from Canaan with a good report: “But Y’hoshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive out of those men who went to spy out the land.” (Numbers 14:38).
Yahweh had already instructed Moshe to lay his hands on Y’hoshua in front of the Israelites to indicate that he would follow Moshe to lead the sons of Israel into the Land: “and he took Y’hoshua and set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, just as Yahweh had spoken through Moshe” (Numbers 27:22-23). Now, Moshe realizes that Y’hoshua is ready to inherit the leadership responsibilities for the children of Israel. It is at this point, that Moshe exhorts the sons of Israel to “be strong and courageous” prior to entering the Land. (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)
The Sinai Experience
In Vayelekh in chapter 31, we find Moshe challenging the people to obedience, as he promises and charges young Y’hoshua in verse 23 to be strong and full of courage, for indeed he will lead the people into the Land of Promise. But on the heel of that promise, and in keeping with the theme of obedience, he warns of the future apostasy of that often-rebellious bunch.
The Hebrew word that is translated as “strong” is “chazak”, which means “strong”, “firm”, “hard”, “violent”, “mighty”, “powerful”. Steadfastness and strength is an inner power that helps man not to lose courage and pull back in times of crisis. Steadfastness and strength are necessary in order to keep the commandments while met with resistance. Steadfastness and strength are necessary in order to get the victory when under attack. When you feel tempted to become discouraged, it is important to stand firm and keep pressing on to see the Eternal’s supernatural intervention.
What is the purpose of Yahweh reminding them of their rebellious nature and their upcoming failure to obey Him in the face of the seemingly insurmountable challenge that awaits the people as they endeavor to enter the Land of Promise?
Yahweh uses Moshe to point out the downfalls of the people to exhort them from the past experience of Sinai where they broke covenant with Him to greater commitment and consecration and to act in faithfulness toward Him. Moshe reiterates the Torah to awaken within them a remembrance of hearing God’s words at Sinai. Now when the nation was about to enter the land the experience is revived. The entire exhortation which Moshe gives is built around the model of the events that took place at Har Sinai and their consequences. The parallel to the Sinai experience is clear: there, the nation believed that Moshe had died – “This man Moshe, we do not know what has become of him” (Shemot 33:1), and as emphasized by the Midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni), “‘And the nation saw that Moshe was tarrying’ – At the end of 40 days Satan came and turned the world upside down, and their volatile response was – ‘for this man Moshe, we do not know what has become of him.’” The nation convinced that Moshe was dead, turned and made an idol in the image of a calf, “a god which will walk before them.” Correspondingly, Moshe warns in parashat Vayelekh, “For Yahweh your God – He is the One who WALKS BEFORE YOU” (31:6).
It was at this point that the tribe of Levi assumed the task of preserving and reinforcing God’s covenant and leadership of the nation, just as they proved themselves faithful in the matter of the Golden Calf, now they are given added responsibility in being custodians of the Torah which is placed in the Ark.
The emphasis is on the Torah, for in the keeping of the covenant they will prosper and live long in the land. For this reason, they are instructed to read this section of the Torah from chapter 27 onwards every seven years at Sukkot.
“And Moshe commanded them, saying: At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the Shemitta year, on the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel come to present themselves before Yahweh God at the place that He will choose, you shall read this TORAH before all of Israel, that they may hear.” (31:10-11) The person commanded to read the selected portions is the king, who is filling in for Moshe Rabbeinu – who was a king (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 6:11). And since the purpose of the ceremony is to awaken and strengthen the people, it is not necessary that it be held often. It is more effective as a special ceremony held once every seven years.
In their past failures, they had learned their need of Yahweh’s mercy and grace and the budding young nation had already begun to live within that framework, which was initiated at the Mount Sinai experience. Yahweh was training them to become dependant upon His grace alone to get them out of ‘hot water’. The enemies that they would encounter on their way to conquer and inhabit the land would indeed be hot. Having warned the people about their coming days of lawlessness (verses 16-18 of Devarim chapter 31), Yahweh then commands Moshe to teach them a song of remembrance (verse19-22), which will serve as a witness for their God, against the people of Israel. “…this song can be a witness for me against the people of Isra’el.” (31:19b)
The actual song itself is recorded for us in Chapter 32. Although Moshe tells the nation “After my death you shall surely become corrupt…,” we know that throughout Y’hoshua’s period of leadership this did not take place – “indicating that a person considers his close disciple as part of himself;” as long as Y’hoshua lived, it was an extension of his own lifetime.
The Shemittah Assembly
Moshe exhorts the people in the presence of its leadership, Y’hoshua, the Kohanim (priest), the sons of Levi and all the elders of Israel regarding the special role to be played by the leaders in this command to teach the Torah every seventh year at Sukkot. His focus is on Y’hoshua, who will fulfill the role of king, as he had done. And Moshe summoned them all directing his instruction to Y’hoshua, “At the end of seven years, at the time of the Sabbatical year, during the festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before Yahweh, your God, in the place He will choose; you will read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble (HAK’HEL) the people, the men and the women, and the children, and the stranger in your gates, so that they will listen and so that they will learn, and they will revere Yahweh, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who do not know, will listen and learn to revere Yahweh, your God, all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan to possess it” (Devarim 31:7-13). Hak’hel, (the Assembly) as explained here and in the Talmud (Sotah 31a,41a; Chagigah 3a, etc.), requires the entire people of Israel to gather on the first day of Sukkot after the Sabbatical (Shemittah) year. The leader (i.e. king) reads to those assembled from the beginning of Devarim to 6:9; 11:13-21; and 14:22-28:69 which comprises the main body of the Torah. These passages, as noted by the Jewish Rabbis, were to in words of Rambam, “encourage the people towards the commandments and strengthens their commitment to the true faith.”
The Legacy of Life
The word that is repeated and becomes a theme in the end of Deuteronomy 30 is chayim, “life.” In verse 19 we read, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.” Some translations read, “so that you and your offspring may live.” How do our choices affect the lives of our offspring? Perhaps this verse brings us back to the theme of mortality. Moshe is facing his own death, and his message forces us to do the same. We learn that as a result of his actions, he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Even though God does not tell him he is going to die until chapter 31, we get a glimpse of Moshe’ own state of mind when he tells the people, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active [or, come and go]. Moreover, Yahweh has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:2). The awareness that he feels compelled to pass on to the people is that our lives are fleeting and that we are ultimately judged by the choices we make during our lives. When we are aware of our own mortality, we are exercised to repent, that is, to return and review our choices and attitudes and to resolve to change them for the better. Our legacy to the next generation, whether or not we are sealed in the Book of Life, is determined by the impact we make, our unique and enduring signature which we leave in the minds and hearts of others.
We can have a wrong perspective of death, since “to be absent from the body is to be home with Yahweh,” (2 Corinthians 5:8) – it might seem natural to look forward to death and embrace it when it comes, but death is the last enemy of God. (1 Cor. 15:26) Though death is an inevitable certainty this side of the kingdom, it is never our hope. Our hope is in life, and the only reason we find comfort in death is that we know that the Messiah overcome it.
Because we are made for immortality, death is a sacrilege to our inner-being. For this reason, Moshe reluctantly went to his appointment with death. In the same way, the second Moshe goes to die in anguish. His reluctant struggle in Gethsemane and His agonized cry from the cross, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me!” (Matthew 26:39) Death is abhorrent, and one has an obligation to strive against it. Just as Moshe beseeched God for the reprieve, so too did Yeshua. Yet ultimately, both Moshe and the Master surrendered to the will of the Father. “Not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39) For it is in submission to the Father that life is found. They chose life, even in death, and in the death of the Messiah, we find life.
The Faithful Witnesses
What is the need to make the heavens and the earth witnesses of the transaction of the covenant, repeated several times in Devarim? Moshe who is the witness for Yahweh to the covenant is destined to die and Israel could later refute that they had accepted the covenant upon themselves. Therefore he made the heavens and the earth witnesses to them – witnesses that exist forever and by their precise automatic functioning, according to God’s laws of Nature, will reward or punish them. Like any other witnesses, who must be present at the time of the assumption of an obligation – the heaven and earth are present in all generations and enduring witnesses to this covenant.
This is not the first time that the heavens and the earth have served as Moshe’s witnesses. At the end of the first speech in Deuteronomy, Moshe also makes the heavens and the earth his witness (4:25-26); also in Deut. 30:19, we read: “I make witness to you today the HEAVENS and the EARTH: I have placed life and death before you”
Moreover, they (heaven and earth) will respond and bear witness to them if they keep the covenant: the vine will give its fruit, the earth will yield its produce, the heavens will give dew. If they are guilty, the witnesses will be the first to punish them: ‘He will stop up the heavens and they will not give rain, and the earth will not give its produce;’ thereafter, ‘You will perish quickly’ – by the hands of the nations.” Deut. 11:17; Lev.26:19; Deut. 28:12
In Jewish Law, witnesses are the first to punish a criminal; thus natural disaster precedes foreign conquest when Israel abandons the Torah.
The Power of Torah Through Vision and Leadership Haftorah 1 Kings 1:18 A parallel sequence of events to that of Moses is to be found in 1 Kings I:18. We read of the conflict between Elijah and the priests of Ba’al at Mount Carmel.
“When the verse states, ‘By means of a prophet God brought Israel out of Egypt, and by means of a prophet He watched over them,’ There were two prophets of Israel who came from the tribe of Levi; Moses was the first and Elijah is the last, and both served as messengers of the Divine in order to bring about Israel’s redemption – Moses redeemed them from physical bondage in Egypt while Elijah delivered them from spiritual bondage to Ba’al.
Moses and Elijah have similarities in many respects in that they were both prophets, Moses is called a ‘man of God’ and so was Elijah, Moses went up to heaven as well as Elijah. Moses gathered the nation of Israel in front of Mount Sinai and Elijah gathered them at Mount Carmel; Moses destroyed idolatry… and Elijah destroyed idolatry. Moses was zealous… and Elijah was zealous; Moses was buried in a cave… and Elijah was buried in a cave.
Elijah builds an altar out of twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes, and correspondingly we read of Moses that he “built an altar beneath the mountain with twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel” (Shemot 24:4). Elijah announces that the purpose of the gathering at Har Carmel is that “it will be known today that You are God in Israel … and the nation will know that you are Yahweh” (1 Kings 8:36-7), while Moses at Sinai says, “You were shown that you may know that Yahweh is God” (Devarim 4:35).
Likewise, just as Moses commands the tribe of Levi to slay the worshippers of the golden calf by the sword, Elijah commands Bnei Yisrael to slay the priests of Ba’al.
Just like Moses, earlier on, Elijah is commanded to appoint the prophet who will take his place. After he transfers his cloak to Elisha, we read: “And he (Elisha) got up and went after Elijah and he served him.” Just as Joshua served Moses, so Elisha is chosen because of his service to Elijah.
These great prophets, the first and last of their tribe set a pattern which needed to be followed and continued. There must be permanent spiritual leadership which bridges the generations to preserve the covenant, as well as daily encouragement to maintain stability.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:58