Parashat Vayelekh

Coming Together: Affirming And Spreading Our Core Values

The final commandments in the Torah, to gather as a community to hear the Torah and to write down a spiritual legacy, encourage us to re-engage with our core values.

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Like the ancient Israelites taking a deep breath on the last day of the life of Moses, before the upcoming transitions in leadership, we read Parashat Vayelekh every year during a time around the High Holy Days when we seek new meaning and direction in our own lives.

This portion, whose name comes from the Hebrew root for movement, is frequently read together with another portion, Nitzavim, which means standing firmly in place. This juxtaposition implies that, ironically, we move and grow most successfully when we are like trees, firmly planted in a soil rich with experience and tradition, but nurtured alongside living and moving streams.

Parashat Vayelekh contains the last two of the traditional counting of 613 commandments, both of which can connect with the spiritual work we need to do in this transitional period, both for the individual and the community.

In the Torah narrative, Moses completes the writing of the Torah and hands it over to the kohanim, the priests, and the elders. He instructs them to read it to the people at regular intervals, not to keep it to themselves as a private esoteric document. He also prepares and writes down his final "song," a moralistic epic poem to be read and remembered regularly. It will serve as a witness to the fallibility of the people about to enter into possession of a holy land.

From these texts, the Rabbis extract the following mitzvot, or commandments: (1) the entire people and those who identify with them must be gathered every seven years to hear some specific teachings publicly; and (2) every individual must write down this spiritual legacy.

This second commandment was originally understood to mean that everyone is required to make his or her own copy of the Torah. As Jewish law developed, this was modified to include support for the writing of any sacred literature, whether taken from the "written" Torah or its oral (rabbinic) interpretation.

A less literal expression of this commandment is the creation of an ethical will, a statement of one's own interpretation of the spiritual lessons we derive from our tradition and wish to pass on to future generations. This tradition of writing an ethical will has a venerable pedigree in Jewish history, extending from ancient times to today, through which Jews act upon the felt obligation to summarize and pass on the lessons of our lives.

The penultimate command of the Torah is referred to as hakhel, meaning "gather" or "assemble" the people. This sabbatical retreat has some very unusual features. The gathering occurs on the harvest festival, Sukkot, following the year in which there has been no harvest--the sabbatical or shmitah year, in which the land has been given its rest.

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Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta has served since 1982 as Campus Rabbi at George Washington University, and also serves as Associate Rabbi, Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, MD.