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Parasha Vayelech: Moses Prepares Israel for Their Next Leader

Vayelech (And He Went)
Deuteronomy 31:1–30; Hosea 14:1 (2)–9 (10); Joel 2:15–27; Micah 7:18–20; Isaiah 55:6–56:8; Romans 10:14–21

“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you.  He will not leave you nor forsake you.”  (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Last week, in Parasha Nitzavim, God emphasized that we have freedom of choice to follow after the way of life or the way of death.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech (וַיֵּלֶךְ)—Hebrew for then he went out—Moses invests Joshua with leadership and initiates the writing down of the Torah.

A Jewish scribe hand writes a Torah scroll.

A Jewish scribe hand writes a Torah scroll.

Vayelech is the shortest Torah reading of the year, consisting of only one chapter.

The reading for this particular Sabbath, which comes after Rosh Hashanah (Yom Teruah) and before the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), falls during the Ten Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im) during which time we are to seek the Lord with sincere teshuvah (repentance) for our sins.

This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Shuva (Sabbath of Return) because the special prophetic reading from the Book of Hosea starts with Shuvu Yisrael (Return O Israel).

It is also called Shabbat Teshuvah (Shabbat of Repentance) as it calls the people of God to turn from their sins and rebellion and to return (shuv) to God.

Shabbat Shuva actually has two special Haftarah readings.  Hosea 14:1(2)–9(10) emphasizes the importance of heartfelt repentance and Micah 7:18–20 praises God’s mercy.

Moses Pisgah Death of Moses Jordan River

Moses sees the Promised Land from atop the Pisgah mountain range, which is east of the Jordan River, realizing his time on earth will soon be over and that he must prepare Joshua to lead the people to their promised possession.

Succession Planning: Moses and Joshua

“Then Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.  And he said to them: ‘I am one hundred and twenty years old today.  I can no longer go out and come in.  Also the LORD has said to me, “You shall not cross over this Jordan.”’”  (Deuteronomy 31:1–2)

In this Parasha, Moses faces his imminent death.  At the age of 120 years, he prepares his people for a future without his leadership.

Moses knows that he will not be the one to take the children of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Although Moses would not go with the people, he assures them that God will go with them and give them victory against their enemies.

God also gives a word to the people of Israel through Moses: “Be strong and of good courage.”

Why did they need this encouragement?

It is because in the Promised Land they would be facing new enemies and challenges that they had never encountered in the wilderness.  They would also need to learn how to work the land instead of having manna rain down each day from Heaven.

Aerial view of Jerusalem looking toward the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives.

Aerial view of Jerusalem looking toward the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives.

Moses, however, was not about to leave the people leaderless, like sheep without a shepherd.  He ordained Joshua as his successor to take over the leadership role.

“Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and of good courage, for you must go with this people to the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it.’”  (Deuteronomy 31:7)

Moses gave us a beautiful example of someone who knew how to exit his position of prominence with grace and dignity.  He knew when it was time to step down.

He not only passed on the torch to the next generation without any display of resentment or hurt feelings, he also publicly bestowed blessings, encouragement, and affirmation upon the one who would take his place “in the sight of all Israel.”

Joshua ben Nun of the tribe of Ephraim was groomed for this leadership role.

He was a skilled military leader of the campaign against Amalek (Exodus 17:8–13), and loyal disciple of Moses.  He was also the first to greet Moses after patiently waiting 40 days for him to descend from Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:15–17).

It seems that Moses made a wise decision in choosing Joshua—even over his two sons (Gershom and Eliezer)—for Joshua followed God’s directions, trusting Him to successfully lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

As a result, Joshua conquered Jericho and eventually the rest of Canaan.

Forty Years a General, Delightful Stories, 1888

Forty Years a General, Delightful Stories, 1888

We, too, when embarking upon a new venture, need to have the strength and courage to trust that God will be with us to help us overcome every challenge and to meet every need.

“Through God we will do valiantly, and it is He who shall tread down our adversaries.”  (Psalm 60:12)

Moreover, people may come and go in our lives, but God is the faithful One who will never abandon us.

We may come to depend upon people, even those who are capable, strong, spiritual leaders, but ultimately we need to trust that it is God who will be our “ever-present help in times of trouble.  Therefore we will not fear.”  (Psalm 46:1–2) 

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man with payot (sidecurls) prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man with payot (sidecurls) prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

Succession Planning and the Torah

Succession in this Parasha was not only about leadership.  Moses ensured that the people had what they needed to bring them into the future.

He wrote down the Torah and commanded the Israelites to read it every seven years in the year of the Shemitah (Sabbatical year) at the time of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

Moses entrusted the safekeeping of this Torah into the hands of the sons of Aaron who were the Cohanim (Jewish Priests) as well as all the Levites, who were charged with carrying the Ark of the Covenant, among other duties.

In this way, the Torah was to be taught and handed down to generation after generation so that they would fear the Lord and keep His commandments.

We also have a responsibility to teach the Word of God to our children—that they may teach their children and so on down the generations—to fear God and obey His Word.

“Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.”  (Deuteronomy 31:12–13)

Torah scroll

Torah scroll

The responsibility to diligently teach our children the Torah is still taken seriously today by much of the Jewish people, based on the command:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4–7)

Passing on our faith in God to our children is not the job of the youth ministry teacher once a week during congregation services; it is meant to be a lifestyle of living out faith and obedience in front of our children, as well as talking about God and His Word throughout the day—every day. 

Jewish children at the Western (Wailing) Wall Plaza in Jerusalem.

Jewish children at the Western (Wailing) Wall Plaza in Jerusalem.

Sin, Repentance, and the Glory of God

In this Parasha, we come to realize that God knew that despite all His warnings, the people of Israel would go astray and commit spiritual adultery by seeking after other gods and worshiping the idols of the pagans around them in the Promised Land.

“And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.

“‘Then My anger shall be aroused against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured.  And many evils and troubles shall befall them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’”  (Deuteronomy 31:16–17)

Twice, God says He will hide His face (hester panim) from His people because of their sins.  This term does not indicate the lack of Divine Providence but the concealment of it.

We can see this at work even today.  God is maintaining His state of being hidden from the people of Israel—but the Father is revealed through Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).

“Anyone who has seen Me,” Yeshua said, “has seen the Father.”  (John 14:9)

In Yeshua, we see God in all of His glory:

“For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Yeshua the Messiah.”  (2 Corinthians 4:6)

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