Parashat VaYelekh-Stop, Drop, and Soul
In a year in which there is only one Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, Parashat Nissavim and VaYelekh are read as a double Parashah on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, and Parashat Haazinu is read the next week, on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). If there are two Shabbatot between Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, Parashat Nissavim is read before Rosh HaShanah, Parashat VaYelekh is read on Shabbat Shuvah, and Parashat Haazinu is read on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
BH this year, we had read Parashat Nissavim last week and will read Parashat VaYelekh this week on Shabbat Shuvah. Obviously, HaKadosh Barukh Hu had set it up specifically this way and so, let’s try to understand maybe one potential message of why this year Parashat Nissavim and Vayelekh are read separately.
The word Nissavim means ‘standing’, while the word VaYelekh implies ‘going’ or ‘walking’. So if we think about it, the Parashah we have read before Rosh HaShanah is about ‘standing’ in once place, while the Parashah we read after refers to movement. Something must have changed from the first week to the next. What exactly is this change that takes place? And why is it specifically on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat we ‘return’ to HaShem that we read Parashat VaYelekh?
Two questions, one answer.
Parashat Nissavim speaks about the possibility of doing Teshuvah and how to go about it. Here, Benei Yisrael stand still and kind of absorb the message. They haven’t done much yet, they’re just getting some good tips for the future from Moshe Rabbenu. They stand there and reflect. But in Parashat VaYelekh, that’s where the action is at. Here, Moshe Rabbenu transfers his leadership to Yehoshua bin Nuun. Here, Moshe Rabbenu instills courage in the hearts of Kelal Yisrael. Here, they are given the direct commandment to gather all of Benei Yisrael once every seven years on Sukkot for the reading of the Torah HaKedoshah by the King, a Missvah known as Hakel, and the Missvah upon every single Yid to write their own personal Sefer Torah. Here, we learn about leadership, unity, and personal growth. These are not just concepts, they are solid actions. They are movements. We are no longer ‘Nissavim’, here we are ‘VaYelekh’, halikhah, to walk, to move—to act.
The theory and concepts in Nissavim are put into action in VaYelekh. Likewise, the theory, concepts and ideals we talk about and take on ourselves before Rosh HaShanah, must be put into action afterwards; they must be put into a state of ‘VaYelekh’. On Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur, we are Nissavim most of the time—both literally and figuratively. We stand in Beit Keneset all day and daven our hearts out, we say we want to do Teshuvah, but other than that, we are not so active, we aren’t actually tested in our Teshuvah yet, we have only committed to doing it and changing ourselves for the better. But it is not enough to just think about these things, we must do something about them.
There was once a fellow who became uncomfortably ill. He made his way to a doctor, was checked thoroughly and was assigned a prescription. The doctor instructed him to return in three weeks for a follow-up. Three weeks later, he comes back with escalating symptoms. ‘I just don’t understand Doctor! I took the prescription and read it three times daily just like you said. Why don’t I see any improvement??’
It is not just enough to read the prescription, we must follow through and actually do what is prescribed to us. Although we stand for a total of three days in intense prayer and supplication, on top of forty days of reciting selihot, our lip service means nothing if we do not act on it, if we do not follow through with what we are prescribed.
Following through does not only mean to keep up with the commitments we made until the end of Hodesh Tishrei and then forget about it all. Following through means that each and every day, when it gets down to the little things, we still honor our commitments. Following through means that next year this time, we appear in front of HaKadosh Barukh Hu not with the same claims as last year. Following through means that every day from here on we will consciously have in mind the commitments we made, and this translates into every iota of our behavior. No more Nissavim, it’s time to get going, it’s time for VaYelekh.
There is an event in this Parashah that hints to this concept further. We see in Parashat VaYelekh that it becomes time for Moshe Rabbenu to pass on his leadership to Yehoshua bin Nuun. Moshe Rabbenu is sometimes compared to the sun, being the brightest star in the sky. Therefore, Yehoshua bin Nuun is compared to the moon, which reflects the light of the sun. Here, there is an emphasis on the transition from the sun to the moon. The sun is stationary, it does not move. Rather the world revolves around it. The moon however, is always moving, orbiting the earth. The moon is always changing, moving from one phase to another. HaShem is telling us, until now, as great as you were, as bright as you shine, you were like the sun—you didn’t move, you didn’t change. But now I demand of you to become more like the moon. This is greater in My Eyes. I ask of you to adopt the characteristic of action, of movement, of change. Break free from your stagnant stance and evolve, wax and wane, grow. This is what I demand of you.
Indeed, this is the spirit of the times. All other hagim coincide on the fifteenth of the month. Yet Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur occur in the beginning of the month, when the moon is small, when the moon is growing. HaShem is telling us, be like the moon. Grow.
Be’Ezrat HaShem Yitbarakh, may we adopt and internalize this concept of growth and positive change, may we break free from our stagnant lives and move upwards. Even if we have been shining bright until now, we can do what we have been doing thus far but better. And so, instead of taking myriads of things upon ourselves that we won’t be able to commit to and follow through with, let us make a resolution, not to take new things upon ourselves, but to continue to do the good things we do but better. Like this, we aren’t just intensifying how bright we shine, but we are growing and fulfilling our potential in life. We will impersonate the moon. May we have much Hasslahah in this endeavor!
May we all be zokhim of Teshuvah Shelemah, of putting our heartfelt commitments into action, and in this zekhout, may we be escorted by a year full of Berakhah, Simhah and Hasslahah Rabbah!
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shuvah Shalom uMevorakh!
Inspiration and information from Rabbi Keleman and Rabbi Avraham Twerski