Shabbat VaYeilekh: We Went Forth

By Shir Tikvah Talmidah Hakhamah Emma Lugo

In Vayeilech we find Moshe Rabeinu at the end of his life, and what a long and strange trip it has been.  Our beloved Moses was born into slavery but became the Prince of Egypt by floating down a river, he discovered the truth about who he really was, lived the life of a shepherd in the wilderness, was spoken to by the Divine when he was already into what we might consider middle age, came back to Egypt to lead a revolution that was sealed in a promise from the Divine that she would not abandon her people, split the Red Sea and led the people through 40 years of wandering in the desert, now about to cross over into the promised land but Moses doesn’t get to go.

Instead the Divine has chosen Joshua and the message to Moses is clear.  Your time is up, even though you are bright-eyed you can no longer be active, it is up to the Divine who has made their choice and it will be Joshua, led by the Divine who will follow through on the life work of Moses.

We have been through a moment, both in our community and in the world.  We are in a moment of profound transition both as Jews and as Americans as well as global citizens.  We are standing at that boundary between a planet that we have loved, that has nurtured and sustained us for 10,000 generations and we are stepping into a new reality that has been created by our desire, our greed, our blindness and it doesn’t look so good.

Perhaps that is one of the reminders of Vayeilech, it is a reminder that the Divine is not our Mother.  She is not there to just approvingly nod at all of our misdirections, our evil deeds, our neglect.  The spaces where we collectively and individually have failed to protect our planet and all the precious life forms that exist in her nurturing womb.  If we turn to the idols of greed, of neglect, of obliviousness, when we fail to see the future consequences of our actions today Vayeilech is here to remind us, on this special Shabbat between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur that Judaism is a religion of doing, it is an action.  We have a ritual that is given to us, a way of understanding the world that was given to us by the redactors of the Torah.  They had an intuitive understanding of human nature and using the tools that they had in their time to create a text that has carried us through the generations.

Moses sings a song, a Shira, but it is not a happy song.  It is a song of divination, an opportunity to look into the future and into the hearts of his people.  Moses has risen from out of the ashes of time to become the blueprint for the Prophet.  He and his brother have transformed the lives of a people by listening to the Divine, understanding the deepest meaning of how they interpreted her will and created the foundation of a text that provides a pathway to justice.  

In verse 20 of Vayeilech the Divine speaks through Moses, “When I bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey . . . they will eat their fill and grow fat, turning to other gods, they will spurn me . . . many evils and troubles will befall them and this poem will confront them as a witness, it will never be lost from their offspring.”  Rabbenu Bahya in his commentary said that this paragraph speaks about the conditions during the first temple, but it could just as easily speak to us about conditions today.  What was it in our national consciousness that allowed us to turn our backs on the progress and vision we have as a fully inclusive country?  Where in our national character, as Americans, did we allow ourselves to tolerate national leaders or a Supreme court that has turned its back on immigrants, on people of color, and on women.  How have we become so filled with the evil inclination that we can tolerate turning citizens into bounty hunters, chasing down women who choose to exercise their fundamental rights to choice?

Where in our past did we lose the connection to that high point in the Civil Rights movement when the Voting Rights Act was passed, resulting in the elections of thousands of African Americans to local, statewide, and national office, culminating in the election of our first black President in 2000.  How did we lose our way to the point that we now have completely gutted the Voting Rights Act and have tolerated legislation passed in states like Georgia which are based on outright lies about election integrity?  Meanwhile, our desperate neighbors to the global south, yearning for freedom looking to that shining light are still trying to cross over into the promise that we have neglected but which they still believe in.

Vayeilech, as well as all of Torah, is a reminder that everything is one, everything is interconnected and the future is not a given.  If we tolerate a nation that grows up on shows like “Cops” and is willing to tolerate an expanded federal and state prison system that has incarcerated millions of black and brown people in the last thirty years mostly for nonviolent drug offenses, if we cannot see the long chain of white supremacy in the emanations of the present, then we will continue to pay the price and the Divine indeed will continue to turn her face from us. 

Rabbenu Bahya, speaking in the commentary reminds us that Moses is looking at the future, he can draw conclusions from Israel’s behavior in his own time that the people will suffer from their inclination to practice idolatry, their sufferings will increase and they will turn away from the Divine.  

This Torah moment, this week when we study Vayeilech on its own separated from her companion Nitzavim, is a powerful moment.  We are right in the midst of the high holy days, the days between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur when we have the power within us, really that power that we have at any time, but our tradition has given us this ritual to understand that we have the power of transformation within us.  We can change ourselves, we can change the world.  When Moses looked at his life, and when he saw his people, he understood that he had a responsibility to lead his people out of slavery, and led by the Divine, protected and wrapped up in the blessing of her promise he did it.  In our tradition effort and intention is everything,  now is the time to turn away from those chains of the past that have dragged us down and to see the truly revolutionary power of Teshuva to bring us out of the murky spaces of the past into a bright future where we are again standing together in covenant, a kehillah kedosha, a community of transformation and repair.

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