Va-Yelekh: on didacticism, on death, on dreams

We are in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for apologies and forgiveness. A time to make amends. For traditional Jews, this was the time to worry about whether you’d be inscribed in the book of life. It is fitting, therefore, that the weekly parshah, Va-Yelekh, moves from last week’s theme of life into the theme of death. Moses is saying farewell to his people. Notably, the text narrates his own death (odd that he is still speaking – he tells the story of how he dies) and the Torah being formed as a written document (again, it is rare for a text to encode its own encoding). These are signs that the Torah was written for people, by people. So what are we to learn from Moses as a character? While he is not a historical person as far as history shows us, his figurative power – as a deliverer and a leader – have been hugely meaningful to Jews throughout the ages. Moses notes that he is 120 years old. He simply cannot go on (this is the maximum age, scholars suggest, that God can allow a human to live). Moses names Joshua his successor, and gives him a bit of a pep talk as to the qualities he has that make him deserving, and those he needs to lead. Moses is a good role model for leadership – he goes as far as he can and then creates a legacy. Moses, in this scene and throughout the biblical narrative, reminds us of the frailties and mistakes of humanity, but also that we can meet challenges, inspire others, fight for freedom, and blaze new trails. He is a Humanistic hero in many ways and, just as we experience sadness for the death of any literary character with whom we connect, his death saddens us as well. For Humanistic Jews, we do not believe there is a book that tells who shall live and who shall die. The hard truth is that no one knows how much time any of us has. For this reason, we are compelled to make maximum meaning out of the time we have. Moses inspires us to imagine what we can do for ourselves and others to better our circumstances. Whatever is our own “promised land,” our lives are about its pursuit. 

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