Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
Vayeilech is a prelude to a song. Moses and the Holy One take turns encouraging Joshua to take heart as he leads his people into the Promised Land. Then Moses gives a final mitzvah to the Priests, Levites and Elders of Israel. They are to hear “this teaching” during Sukkot when all are gathered once every seven years for the Sabbatical year. Then Moses is told it is nearly time to “lie with your fathers.”
The Holy One views Moses’s imminent demise as a signal for Israel to go astray seeing them as unable to resist the idolatrous ways of her neighbors. He dictates a song that He requires to be on the mouths of the people as a testimony to their wickedness. Moses reiterates these words to the people with a personal imprimatur. “Throughout my life you have been defiant and stiff-necked, how much more so after I’m dead.”
The Torah portion ends and we get to hear the poem next week.
We know that earlier in Deuteronomy that Moses pleaded with the Holy One to pardon him and allow him to enter the land with his people. Moses is rebuked harshly by the Holy One and told in no uncertain terms that the subject is closed. Now, Moses is told that his demise is directly related to the degeneration of his people. The following Midrash when understood in this context not only has Moses pleading for his own life, but maybe much more?
Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Vaetchanan
The Holy One said: This is the way of the world, each generation has its teachers, each generation has its maintainers, each generation has its leaders. Until now it was your turn to serve, and now it is Joshua, your student’s turn. Moses said, “Sovereign of the universe, if it is because of Joshua I must die, I’ll go and be his student.”
God said, “If this is what you wish, go ahead and try!” Moses awakened early and hurried to the doorway of Joshua, and Joshua was sitting and teaching. Moses stood stooped over, and placed his hand over his mouth, and Joshua was not aware of his presence and ignored him so that Moses would feel bad and reconcile himself to his fate.
The people of Israel went to Moses’ tent but then found Moses at Joshua’s tent, with Joshua sitting and Moses standing. They called out, “What is this, that Moses stands while you sit there and teach?” When Joshua tore his eyes away and saw Moses, he tore his clothes, and wailed, crying, “Rebbe, Rebbe, Father, Father, Master!!
The whole of Israel said to Moses, “Moses our Rebbe, teach us Torah. He said to them, “I don’t have permission.” They said to him, “We will not leave you.” A heavenly voice called out, and said, “Learn from Joshua!” So, they accepted the voice and sat and learned from Joshua.
Joshua sat at the head, Moses was on the right and Elazar and Itamar (priestly sons of Aaron) were on the left, and Joshua taught the multitudes in front of Moses.
Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: When Joshua began with the words, “Blessed be the One who chose the righteous and their teachings…” The tradition of wisdom was removed from Moses and given to Joshua, and Moses no longer understood what Joshua was teaching.
After awhile the whole of Israel arose and said to Moses, “Summarize the teaching for us!” Moses said, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Moses stumbled and fell, and at that moment, he said, “Until now I have wished for life, and now my soul is offered up to you.”
Your Midrash Navigator
1. Why does God allow Moses to try to be Joshua’s student?
2. Is it possible that Moses would be allowed to live if he could tolerate his new status?
3. Why did God remove wisdom from Moses?
4. Can wisdom be removed from one and given to another? What does this mean to you?
5. What makes Moses accept his fate?
Now we have a different midrash which views Moses as actively paving the way for his successor.
Sifre Devarim, Netzavim, Vayeilech
“God said to Moses, Take for yourself Joshua Ben Nun…” (Number 27:18) A man such as you. The word “take” is used, for a friend is acquired through taking through the greatest of hardships. Thus it was stated in Avot of Rebbe Natan: A person should acquire a friend to eat with, to sleep with and reveal all secrets to him. Thus it is written: “A three stranded thread will not unravel quickly.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9)
The Holy Spirit responded to Moses: Give a spokesman to Moses, and let him ask questions, interpret verses and give rulings while you are still alive, so that when you die Israel will not say to him, “When your teacher was alive you did not speak, and NOW you speak!!.
There are those who say, that Moses lifted Joshua up and placed him on his lap, and Moses and Israel together would lift their heads to hear the sound of Joshua’s words. What would [Joshua] say, “Blessed be the Lord who gave the Torah to Israel through the hands of Moses our teacher,” and these are the words of Joshua.
Your Midrash Navigator
1. Compare the two midrashim (midrashes). Do they contradict or complement each other?
2. If you see the two midrashim as two different stages in Moses’s development, does this change your opinion?
3. The Midrash already acknowledges that Moses has asked for a successor way before the beginning of Deuteronomy. How do you understand that Moses is still arguing to go across the Jordan?
4. Can one lead when one’s predecessor is still active within the community?
Moses has been told that Israel will certainly revert to their old ways because of his absence. Even though Joshua is encouraged to take heart, there is an understanding that moral leadership under Joshua will not be the same.
Moses doesn’t understand why it is more important for him to depart than to supply the moral leadership that is essential for Israel not to go astray. It is as if the Holy One says, sooner or later, ready or not, there comes a time when a people must assume responsibility for its own behavior. Even though I expect Israel to fail the test, and I will now dictate a poem that will show my future hiding is a result of their moral decline,
Your place Moses is on this side of the Jordan. They will rely on you no more.
One cannot blame one’s own failings on the absence of moral leadership. Vicarious pride in the righteous among us says little of our own achievements. Ultimately, the place to look for moral failings is from within.
Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
Pronounced: ah-VOTE, Origin: Hebrew, fathers or parents, usually refering to the biblical Patriarchs.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.