Vayeilekh: Mixed Messages

I was pleased with myself for writing about the Torah portion Ha-Azinu early, and posting it right after Rosh Hashannah. Then I checked the Hebrew calendar, and discovered that because of when the holy days fall this year, we read Ha-Azinu next week, after Yom Kippur.  This year, the Torah portion to read between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur is Vayeilekh (“And he went”), a short piece just before the poem of Ha-Azinu.

So my posting yesterday was not on time after all; it was a week ahead of time.  It figures. I have a bad habit of rushing into the future without pausing to check out the present. Today, when I went back and looked at what I skipped over, I noticed that Vayeilekh includes two different ways of looking at the future.

Moses announces that since he is 120 years old and it is time for him to die, Joshua will lead the people across the Jordan River to take over the land of Canaan. He tells them not to be afraid, because God will be with them and ensure their success. Then God speaks to Moses.

God said to Moses:  Hey! Your days to die are drawing close; call Joshua and stand yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, and I will command him. So Moses and Joshua went and stood themselves in the Tent of Meeting. Then God appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood over the opening of the tent. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:14-15)

God often speaks to Moses without any visual effects, but this time God adds the pillar of cloud to demonstrate to both Joshua, inside the tent, and the Israelites, outside the tent, that God really is confirming the new leader.

Then God said to Moses: Hey, you will be lying with your forefathers, and these people will rise up, and they will go whoring after the foreign gods of the land that they are coming into the midst of, and they will abandon me and break my covenant that I cut with them. And My nose will be hot against them on that day, and I will abandon them, and I will hide My face from them, and they will become fodder, and many evils and constrictions will find them … (Deuteronomy 3:16-17)

Then God tells Moses to teach the people the song in Ha-Azinu, so that someday they will realize how they screwed up. After this, God tells Joshua:

Be resolute and bold, because you yourself will bring the children of Israel into the land that I have sworn to them, and I myself will be with you. (Deuteronomy 31:23)

That’s all God says to Joshua.  It’s an encouraging message, the opposite of the gloomy prediction God gives Moses.  Both men were standing in the Tent of Meeting, but since God speaks to Moses, then to Joshua, instead of to both of them together, the classic commentary assumes that neither man heard what God said to the other.

Why does God encourage Joshua, but give Moses a discouraging prediction? If Joshua, the new leader, knew that the Israelites were going to screw up, couldn’t he to do something to mitigate it?  And if Moses, who is about to die, believed the Israelites he dedicated 40 years of his life to shepherding are heading into a bright future, wouldn’t he die in peace?

I don’t think so.  In my own life, when I am about to begin a new enterprise, I need encouragement. I do not need someone to tell me the project will fail; I can easily imagine that myself. If an authority figure confirmed my fears, I might give up prematurely.

On the other hand, when I am giving up something that was important in my life, I am experienced enough to accept any unpleasant truth about it. If I did my best, most of the time, that is enough. But I am curious about what will happen next. If I found out that the project I started would eventually fail, but that later it could be revived and redeemed, I think I would be content. When it is time for me to give up on life itself (and may I live for 120 years, like Moses!)  I pray that I will be able to accept that, too.

For everything there is a season: a time to be resolute and bold, and a time to release and accept. In the Torah portion Vayeilech, God knows which time it is for Joshua, and which time it is for Moses.

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