Vayielekh: Two Messages

September 9, 2021 at 11:05 am | Posted in Vayeilekh | Leave a comment

An old era ends, a new era begins.  The old leader steps back, the new leader steps forward.  It happens on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah, “Head of the Year”), which started Monday evening.1  And it happens in the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, Vayeilekh (“And he went”).

The portion begins with Moses announcing that he is 120 years old and cannot lead the people in the conquest of Canaan.  He mentions that God had told him he would not cross the Jordan River; he knows he will die without setting foot on the “promised land”.

Moses urges first the Israelite, then their next leader, not to be afraid of the Canaanites:

Chizku and imtzu!  You must not be overawed nor in dread of their faces, because God himself, your God, is the one going with you.  [God] will not let go of you nor abandon you.”  Then Moses called Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel: “Chazak and eimatz!  Because you yourself will bring this people to the land the God vowed to give your forefathers, and you yourself will apportion inheritances [of land] to them.”  (Deuteronomy 31:6-7)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural imperative of chazak, חָזַק)  Be strong!  Be courageous!  Be resolute!  chazak (חֲזַק) = (singular imperative of חָזַק).

imtzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural imperative of amatz, אָמַץ)  Be strong!  Be courageous!  Be resolute!  eimatz (אֶמָצ) = (singular imperative of amatz).2

Moses gives Joshua and the Israelites the same message.  But when God speaks to each one in the Tent of Meeting, God gives them different messages.

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

Then God tells Moses to teach the people the song in next week’s Torah portion, Ha-Azinu, so that someday they will realize how they screwed up.

And [God] commanded Joshua, son of Nun, and said: “Chazak and eimatz!  Because you yourself will bring the children of Israel into the land that I have vowed to them, and I myself will be with you.”  (Deuteronomy 31:23)

That is all God says to Joshua—a repetition of Moses’ earlier encouragement.  Although both men stand inside the Tent of Meeting, each one seems to hear only the divine message addressed to him.

Why does God give Moses a discouraging prediction?

Moses dedicated the last 40 years of his life to shepherding the recalcitrant Israelites to Canaan.  How can he die in peace now that he knows they will abandon God again in their new land?

I have discovered that when I am giving up a project that was important in my life, I am finally able to accept any unpleasant truth about it.  As long as 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 fail, but could someday be revived, I think I would be content.

Why does God encourage Joshua?

The new leader of the Israelites has more energy than Moses.  If Joshua knew that is charges were going to abandon God and go after idols again, wouldn’t he do something to mitigate the situation?

I have noticed that then I am about to begin a new enterprise, I feel nervous and I crave 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.

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

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in 2012.)

  1. Jews outside Israel observe Rosh Hashanah for two full days. Synagogues provide ten or more hours of services in addition to the outdoor ritual of Tashlich, in which we symbolically cast away our regrettable behaviors from the past year by tossing pebbles in the water.  The extra liturgy for Rosh Hashanah introduces the themes of repentance that come to full bloom on Yom Kippur.  In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we still read a Torah portion from Deuteronomy as we approach the end of the annual cycle of readings.
  2. Chazak and eimatz are close synonyms. Biblical Hebrew often uses a pair of synonyms either to indicate emphasis or as a poetic device.


Vayeilekh: The End of Days

August 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Isaiah 1, Vayeilekh | 5 Comments
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Will we win the human race, or self-destruct? Will there ever be a time without war, a time without evil deeds?

And what about my own nation, religion, or people? Will we ever learn how to get it right, and become a good model for the rest of the world?

I think people’s longing for answers to these questions creates a demand for prophecies. Even if we will not live to see it, we want to know the eventual outcome.

In the Hebrew Bible, if someone makes a prediction containing the idiom be-acharit hayamim, it is probably a prophecy inspired by God. This idiom appears 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, eight times in a speech attributed to God or an angel of God, and seven times in a speech by someone we know God has been talking to: Jacob, Bilam, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel.

be-acharit = at the end, in the aftermath, as an outcome, in the future. (From achar = after, afterwards.)

hayamim = (literally) the days; (as an idiom) a long period of time, an era.

be-acharit hayamim = (literally) “at the end of days”; (as an idiom) in the distant future, as a long-term outcome.

Most of the prophecies of be-acharit hayamim are about the future of the people of Israel, and describe events that happened up to and including the building of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E. (Prophecies about neighboring kingdoms foretell events in the same time period.)

One of Moses’ prophecies about the Israelites appears in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”):

For I know that after my death, you will indeed go to ruin, and you will turn aside from the path that I commanded you, and you will call down evil on yourselves, be-acharit hayamim; for you will do what is evil in the eyes of God, offending [God] through the doings of your hands. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:29)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stops on that gloomy note. But earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says what will happen afterward. After the Israelites have reverted to idol-worship and doing evil in God’s eyes of God, other nations will defeat them, and the remaining Israelites will suffer exile. But then the exiles will seek out God again.

When you are in distress and all these things have found you, be-acharit hayamim, then you will return to God, your god, and you will listen to Its voice. (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Two other prophecies about the future of the Israelites go on to foretell the future of all humankind. One prophecy of our ultimate future appears in the book of Isaiah and is quoted in Micah; the other comprises the last three chapters of the book of Daniel. The two predictions are mutually exclusive, and neither course of events has occurred yet.

Here is Isaiah’s prophecy:

And it will happen, be-acharit hayamim, the mountain of the house of God will stand firm at the head of the mountains, and be lifted above the hills; and all the nations will be a river. And many peoples will say: “Go, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the god of Jacob, and [God] will teach us Its ways.” …and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

This passage in the book of Isaiah is one basis of the majority opinion in Jewish commentary that the ultimate future of the world is the “messianic era”, a time when the whole world will live in peace, under the supervision of a descendant of King David. This leader will be called the moshiach = anointed one, but unlike the Christian messiah, he will be a righteous human being who is eventually anointed as a king. The world will continue with the same natural laws; the only difference is that all human beings will behave well, and follow the same god.

The last chapter of Daniel, however, is a precursor to the Christian book of Revelation, and hints at the end of the world and natural law. Daniel has a vision and faints; then a hand shakes him, and when Daniel stands up he realizes an angel is speaking to him. The angel says:

I come to make you understand what is summoning your people be-acharit hayamim, because there is another vision for the era. (Daniel 10:14)

The angel begins by foretelling that Persia will defeat Egypt in long war, but then will be overrun by other peoples from the northeast. This will put the Israelites in dire straits, but some of them will escape to safety.

The next sentence is mysterious: And many who are sleeping in the dusty earth will be awakened: these for everlasting life, and those for everlasting abhorrent disgrace. (Daniel 12:2).

Daniel asks the angel for clarification, but the angel refuses to explain. The angel ends the book by saying: But you, go on to the keitz; then you will rest, and then you will stand up to be assigned your fate at the keitz hayamim. (Daniel 12:13)

keitz = end, limit, boundary, farthest point.

keitz hayamim=the farthest limit of time.

Daniel’s angel seems to switch from talking about future events during the course of time (be-acharit hayamim), to the end of time for this world (keitz hayamim). This is the only occurrence in the Hebrew bible of the phrase keitz hayamim.

It may also be the first written prediction of a resurrection of the dead combined with a final judgment consigning people to heaven or hell. This idea did not get much traction in Judaism, at least not until many centuries later, when Jews were living in the diaspora among medieval Christians. But it must have influenced the Christian book of Revelation.

Isaiah’s prophecy about the future of humankind is optimistic that humans can change dramatically for the good. No supernatural miracles will be required for all the peoples of the world to adopt the same god (or more importantly, the same values), and stop making war.

The final prophecy in the book of Daniel is pessimistic, It assumes that good people from the past must be resurrected in order to lead people to knowledge and righteousness, and that even then, kings will continue to make war, lie, and magnify themselves, and the wicked will continue to act wickedly. Only a supernatural final judgment will resolve the problem.

Some people still hope for a messianic age, as in Isaiah’s prophecy. Some still anticipate the apocalypse hinted at in Daniel. Even without reference to a bible, people who ponder the future of the world can be divided into two camps. Some people believe the ethical level of humanity will continue to improve, rapidly enough so we will save our polluted earth as well as ourselves. Others believe we will never get our act together in time.

I prefer to hope for the future, even as I wonder what will happen to the world while we wait for the ignorant and the selfish to become enlightened.

Meanwhile, Moses’ two prophecies about the future of the Israelites can be applied to individual enlightenment. Now more than ever we find God in a connection with our individual souls or psyches. If we replace the word for “God” with the word “soul”, and recast the sentences for the present time, here is what we learn:

After the loss of your rebbe/guru/mentor, you will turn aside from the path, and as an outcome you will call down bad consequences on yourself; for you will do what your own soul knows is wrong, and you will offend your soul through your bad deeds. (based on Deuteronomy 31:29)

And when you are in distress and all these bad consequences have happened, as the long-term outcome of straying from the path, then you will return to your inner soul, and you will listen to its voice. (based on Deuteronomy 4:30)

I pray that enough people find enlightenment inside themselves, and dedicate their lives to doing no harm, and repairing what they can repair. I am ready to beat my spear into a pruning hook!

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