Vayelech is always part of the High Holy Day season. We read it either together with Nitzavim on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah or, as this year, by itself on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
The setting is the last few hours of Moses’ life. He reassures the people that even when he is no longer with them, God will not abandon them but will bring them into the land of Israel; he charges Joshua as his successor; and he gives the people the commandment concerning the public reading of the Torah that is to take place every seven years at Sukkot.
Then God speaks to Moses: “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting that I may instruct him.”
Moses had known for some time that he was to die in the wilderness, that he would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel, but according to the rabbis, he hadn’t completely accepted it — he kept asking God to let him live. And so, in Midrash Devarim Rabbah, we learn that Moses now approached God one more time and said:
“Master of the Universe, let Joshua take over my office and I will continue to live.” So God replied, “Treat him as he treats you.” So Moses went to Joshua’s tent and called, “My teacher, come with me,” and they set out, Moses walking at Joshua’s left, as a disciple walks at his teacher’s left.
When they came to the Tent of Meeting, the pillar of cloud separated them. When the cloud lifted, Moses asked Joshua, “What did the Lord say to you?” Joshua replied, “When the Lord spoke to you, did you share the message with me?” At that moment, Moses became reconciled to his imminent death, saying to himself, “It is a hundred times better to depart now than to be jealous of my successor.”
As much as Moses wanted to live, as much as he wanted to see the land, he realized that he couldn’t bear to change positions with Joshua. He didn’t want to live on as a jealous and embittered old man, so he finally accepted God’s decree.
Change is hard — but change is also the only constant in life:
- Children grow up and leave home, and parents grow old and need to be cared for.
- You can find yourself working for three different companies in one year without moving out of your cubicle.
- Old friends drift away and new ones appear.
- You need a teenager to teach you how to use your new phone.
- But at least the Rolling Stones — whom I first saw perform in 1965 — are still going strong.
Change is hard, but it is possible to accept it, even to embrace it. There’s really no other option for, as Moses discovered, a life of jealousy and bitterness isn’t worth living.
At this time of year, we wish each other shana tovah, a good year. What better way to ensure a good year than to embrace change and make the most of it?
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.