Living a Truly Meaningful Life

PARASHAT VAYEILECH/YOM KIPPUR: What we can learn from Moshe's handing over of the leadership on Yom Kippur.

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, is certainly one of the most dramatic and touching parashiot found in the Torah. The parasha is considered to have taken place on the last day of Moses’ life. At age 120, on the 7th of Adar, which is also, according to tradition, the birthday of the heralded leader, Moses is destined to meet his Eternal Maker.

As Moses steps forward to speak to all the people, the Torah dramatically describes his final words, Deuteronomy 31:2, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם, לֹא אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא, וַהשׁם אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּהHe said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for the L-rd has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan!’”

Although Moses will not be crossing the Jordan, he reassures the people by confirming that G-d will be with them, and that Joshua, his great disciple, shall cross over before the people, as G-d has spoken. Moses informs the people that there is nothing to fear, Deuteronomy 31:6, חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ, אַל תִּירְאוּ וְאַל תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם,  כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ, וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ“Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be broken before them. For the L-rd, your G-d–it is He Who goes before you, He will not fail you nor will He forsake you.”

At this dramatic moment, Moses proceeds to transfer the mantle of leadership of the People of Israel to Joshua. The greatest leader of all, has now to face the stark reality that he will never enter the Promised Land, a goal to which he aspired his entire life. One would expect this moment to be somewhat bittersweet–proud of what he has accomplished, proud of Joshua, but deeply pained that his greatest goal in life has eluded him.

Instead, we see that Moses proudly and unhesitatingly calls Joshua to him, encouraging him as well, to be strong and courageous when he leads the people to the land that G-d has sworn to give them. He assures Joshua that G-d will be with him as well, and that he should not be afraid or dismayed.

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his recently-published volume, A Synagogue Companion, notes the unparalleled success of the new leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses. Rabbi Angel points out that Moses’ disciple not only leads the nation into the Promised Land, but actually attains “religious heights for the nation, virtually unparalleled through the rest of Biblical history.”

Rabbi Angel identifies four elements that seem to be the root of Joshua’s success:

1. Joshua always had G-d’s help and support, and the religious nature of Joshua’s leadership energized him.

2. Distinct from Moses his teacher, Joshua had the unqualified support of his nation.

3. Furthermore, the people were always actively involved, helping to develop the community along with Joshua.

4. Joshua saw as his foremost charge to study Torah and to teach it. Joshua’s achievements underscore that without the leader’s constant self-growth and sharing with others, Jewish communal leadership will invariably fail.

Rabbi Angel points to the powerful lessons that are derived from the textual subtleties found in the Torah’s description of the ceremony in which Moses ordains Joshua as the future leader of Israel.

The textual nuances noted by Rabbi Angel were already identified by the sages of the Talmud, and come to underscore Moses’ unwavering love and support for his talented disciple. In Numbers 27:18-23, the Torah states, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה, קַח לְךָ אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ בּוֹ, וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶת יָדְךָ, עָלָיו… וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה  השׁם אֹתוֹ…וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו, וַיְצַוֵּהוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם, בְּיַד מֹשֶׁהAnd the L-rd answered Moses, “Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hands upon him.”…Moses did as the L-rd commanded him…He laid his hand upon him and commissioned him–as the L-rd had spoken through Moses.

The rabbis of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b, and Sifre 141, note that even though G-d commanded Moses to lay his “hand” (singular) on Joshua, Moses laid both his hands on his student, indicating his full sense of generosity and a complete heart. Rabbi Angel cites Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s insightful comment regarding this ordination. Upon ordaining Joshua, Moses is, in effect, saying to his disciple, “We, the older generation, must lean upon you, the younger generation, for our future, for our eternity. If you do not carry on our teachings, we are consigned to oblivion. If you convey our teachings, we live through you into succeeding generations, as part of the eternal Torah…” (Memories of a Giant, 2003, p. 270).

Much of what is taking place at this time in the transfer of leadership, can be better understood in light of the great work written by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973), in which Dr. Becker argues that most human activity ultimately concerns the denial of one’s mortality.

When G-d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He forbade them to eat from two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. It is not mere coincidence that the Al-mighty singled out these two trees, which represent the two great desires of humankind–-the desire for immortality and the quest for omniscience. Neither is it at all surprising that so much of human history concerns the eternal search for the proverbial “Fountain of Youth,” and that major “youth prolonging” industries flourish today in cosmetics, plastic surgery and fashion, which seek to hide/deny the fact of the inevitable human process of aging and growing old.

Can a human being actually achieve immortality? The answer may be found in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insightful words, “If you do not carry on our teachings, we are consigned to oblivion. If you convey our teachings, we live through you into succeeding generations, as part of eternal Torah.”

The desire for immortality is closely linked to the Yom Kippur experience. The annual arrival of Yom Kippur represents the ultimate “Day of Judgment.” It is not only a day that emphasizes human mortality, it is, in fact, the day when G-d judges His creatures, deciding who, in the coming year, will live or who will die, who through fire or who through water.

Yom Kippur is intended to be the human being’s annual encounter with death. In this yearly enactment of our own demise, we do not eat, drink, bathe, anoint ourselves in oils, or have sexual relations. We dress in white (shrouds) as if we are living through our own funeral.

As the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) wrote in her epic poem Renascence, only a person who has died and lives again can truly appreciate life. And, only one who fully appreciates life, can fully appreciate how important it is to transmit one’s life’s values to the next generation.

In this scene, described so dramatically in parashat Vayeilech, Moses teaches all of humankind, not just the value of dying a meaningful death, but also the value of living a meaningful life. His greatest desire to enter the land of Israel has been denied. But, there is not the slightest indication of despair. Moses knows, with certainty, that his great disciple, Joshua, will carry on his work, and through that legacy, Moses himself will continue to live.

This is the lesson that must be at the forefront of our Yom Kippur experience. It is this great New Year’s “resolution” that we must embrace as we approach the fateful day of Divine Judgment. It is this powerful message that will enable us to achieve and live a truly meaningful life.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה  Shanah Tovah and a גְמָר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה G’mar Chatimah Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Originally appears on YUTorah.org

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