Commentary for Vayeilech

10 Oct

The Torah is divided into fifty-four parshahs- fifty-three of which are read in shul on Shabbat and the final parshah, V’zot Hab’rachah, which is read on Simchat Torah (and on Shabbat under rare calendar circumstances that can only happen in Israel). However, because the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar of only 356 days, there are only either fifty or fifty-one Shabbats, and at least two of those will always fall during a holiday and thus require their own reading, leaving us with either forty-eight or forty-nine weeks to complete fifty-three parshahs. To deal with this issue, the Rabbis designated certain pairs of parshahs that are read together on the same Shabbat if need be, in order to make sure that all fifty-three regular weekly parshahs are read on Shabbat every cycle.

These pairs of parshahs each either have a strong thematic connection (such as Tazria and Metzora, which both deal with various ritual impurities) or almost no connection at all (such as Behar and Bechukotai). This week’s parshah, Vayeilech, is often read with last week’s parshah, Nitzavim, with which it shares some thematic connection (both deal with the consequences that will befall the Israelites if they disobey God once they have entered Promised Land), but when we get to the end of Vayeilech, we are left wondering why it was paired with Nitzavim instead of next week’s parshah, Ha’azinu.

After many warnings to the Israelites to keep their faith in God even in rough times and not to succumb to the temptations of idolatry, Moses, declares to the Israelites that he has written a grand poem which, along with the Torah, the heavens, and the earth, will be a “witness” upon the Israelites, meaning that it will serve as evidence that they have been warned about the consequences of sinning, and cannot claim ignorance as an excuse in the face of punishment. Deut: 31:30 reads “Then Moses recited the words of this poem in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel, to the very end.” And then the parshah just ends, with the poem in question taking up the majority of next week’s parshah, Ha’azinu. It is almost impossible to have a more natural continuation of the story and theme than this sort of cliffhanger ending, and yet Vayeilech and Ha’azinu are not read together.

Due to the time of the year at which they fall, Vayeilech and Ha’azinu are always separated by either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. During the High Holidays we make many promises to ourselves. Unfortunately, we are not always the best at keeping these promises. In this week’s parshah, Moses tells us his poem, along with the Torah, the heavens, and the earth, will be a witness upon the Israelites, able to “testify” that they were forewarned as to the nature and consequences of sin, and thus their sins have not been committed out of ignorance. We make many promises to ourselves over the course of the High Holidays, and when we return to shul next week and hear Moses’ testimonial poem recited, it will serve as a witness upon us, too. We have spent the High Holidays identifying our bad behaviors and vowing to fix them, but we need to make sure we follow through on those promises because now that we have identified our faults, next year we will not be able to plead ignorance.


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