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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All of the people are expected to assemble: men and women, children and elders--and not only the Jewish people, but also the local non-Jewish residents are invited to participate. In fact, Sukkot, on which the gathering takes place, was in Temple times the most universal of the national holidays, when sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the nations of the world.

The traditional prophetic reading, or haftarah, which the Rabbis connected to Parashat Vayelekh is taken from Isaiah (55:6-56:8). It contains a précis of universal morality and a strong emphasis on the interconnection of matters of spirit and justice. The prophet declares: "Seek the Eternal while God can be found; observe what is right and do what is just. Let not the foreigner who has attached himself to the Eternal say, 'The Eternal will keep me apart from God's people'…for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

Why is this particular gathering designated to be so inclusive, and what are the texts the gathered are supposed to learn? The three segments read are all from Deuteronomy: (1) the recapitulation of Exodus history through the giving of Ten Commandments, and the passages contained in the Sh'ma and V'ahavta prayers (1:1-6:9) (2) the section which describes the relationship of moral human behavior to the ecology of the land (11:13-21); and (3) a potpourri of laws including the intrepid pursuit of justice (tzedek, tzedek tirdof), concluding with the blessings and curses which are the consequences of moral action or inaction (14:22-28:69).

Interestingly, these particular sections parallel the path prescribed in the Talmud for a person who wishes to join the Jewish people: (a) recognize the traumas of the Jewish past; (b) learn some of the laws of justice seeking, particularly the laws pertaining to the responsibility we have toward the poor and vulnerable; and (c) recognize the consequences of moral failure for the earth and its inhabitants.

But even more striking is the fact that together, these very last commandments in the Torah demand that the entire Jewish people periodically re-engage ourselves with our tradition's core values, and then share our legacy with neighbors--according to Isaiah, with all the nations.

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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.