According to a midrash, Cain, after murdering his brother, left the courtroom rejoicing. On the way out, he met up with his father, who asked how he was bearing up. “I did teshuvah,” the first murderer replied, “and I was forgiven.”
Hearing this, Adam couldn’t believe why it never occurred to him to do the same.
Shabbat Shuva, coming between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, takes its name from the opening words of this week’s haftarah — “Return, O Israel!” — in which the prophet Hosea appeals to the whole nation to repent.
What exactly is teshuvah? The word, like shuva, contains the root “shuv,” meaning “to turn” or “to return,” implying a small physical movement or adjustment.
What may link the haftarah and this week’s portion is their emphasis on a movement that promotes change. While the haftarah addresses itself to the whole nation, bidding them to return to God, the portion trains a spotlight directly on Moses, our teacher, who signally demonstrates a more positive range of teshuvah.
“Vayeilech Moshe,” begins our reading. “And Moses went.” Where did Moses go? We’ll see that a seemingly small movement on the part of Moses is literally a turning point in his life and that of the nation.
For most of his career, our greatest prophet enjoyed an ideal communion with the Divine. “The Lord would speak to Moses face-to-face as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11) Here, speech serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Moses. A midrash compares the reciprocal ease of their conversations to a cave on the seashore: “Once the sea penetrated it and filled it, it never left, but was always flowing in and out.” Every request from God’s favorite was granted.
However, anything Moses ever asked for was on behalf of Israel. When, in his old age, he made one request for himself, it was rejected. In the events leading up to this week’s portion, the Almighty turned down Moses’ prayer to enter the good land, pronounced a sentence of death upon him and distanced Himself from his erstwhile friend. After all this, where was Moses to go? Blocked from open dialogue with the Holy One, Moses’ had only one recourse: to go to the people. If a stream is blocked in one direction, it must find another way. For once, entirely of his own volition, and without acting on divine instruction, say the rabbis, Moses reached out to the Jewish people.
Despite the consolation the Torah gives, that “Moses’ eye was not dimmed nor his natural force abated,” he had to endure an even greater loss: diminishment of his prophetic faculties, many of which were transferred to his successor. “Vayeilech,” says the Berditchever Rebbe, “alludes to the process of the transition of Moses’ spiritual powers to Joshua — and to a new kind of leadership for the Jewish people.”
According to the Netziv, a 19th-century commentator and the author of “HaEmek HaDavar,” previously, whenever Moses returned from his private consultations with the Most High, his voice would carry to the entire nation without his having to move from one central spot. Now, after God distanced Himself, Moses’ capacity to receive divine inspiration was reduced, so that he had to go personally from tribe to tribe, family to family, and one individual to another, to state his situation. As he took his leave, he consoled them all, encouraging them to trust that God would still lead them on the next leg of their journey, and asking their forgiveness if he had hurt them inadvertently. A figure who had once seemed remote, ascetic and almost transcendent now showed the normal vulnerabilities of old age.
A seemingly small movement on the part of Moses is literally a turning point in his life and that of the nation.
Verbalization of one’s situation to the Almighty is an essential part of teshuvah. Notably, Moses’ verbal outpouring was directed not at God but to the people. “Vayeilech Moshe”: a small shift, both physical and moral, was made possible only out of his love for them, and his perspective extends to the entire sweep of Jewish history. When his entire focus was redirected to Israel, was the great Jewish leader in a sense also doing teshuvah?
The emotional freight contained in the single word “vayeilech” — he “went” — on the part of this most selfless of leaders can be regarded as a supreme form of teshuvah. Paradoxically, God, distancing Himself from Moses in our text, was gently prodding His favorite to turn his last focus on his one unresolved issue, his relationship with flawed humanity.
Harsh as barring Moses from the Promise Land may appear, did it not contain an even deeper mercy? The Hebrew word “halach,” a root of vayeilech, in this case means to grow, continue and rise in moral stature. Moses’ expansive capacity to turn and reach out to his fellow Jews and thus right an imbalance not of his making is a clear indication of how far the notion of teshuvah extends. Only then was he able to hand over his soul to God.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Friday, September 10, 2021
Tishrei 4, 5782
Light candles at 6:55 p.m.
Torah Reading: Vayeilech: Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20
Shabbat ends 7:52 p.m.