Drash on Parashat Vayelech
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
As ever, this week’s Torah portion – Vayelech, has so many themes and events that continue to resonate today. God commands the Israelites “hakhel” – gather. One of the things that always stands out to me when I read the Torah, is how well God or the biblical authors/editors/redactors understood humans and human nature. We are by and large pack animals; even the most introverted among us, feel the need for company, interaction and touch. In the absence of community, the void we experience feels like God’s face is hidden from us.
As we approach another year of High Holy Days in lockdown, after 220 days in our homes in the past 18 months, we yearn to gather. We yearn to celebrate with family and friends, and the desire to do so feels stronger than last year. As we believe everyone is created in God’s image, when we don’t see the people we love, we feel the absence of some people viscerally. And it is amplified at times like Rosh Hashanah when we would usually gather together to celebrate and look forward to the New Year.
Three times in this parashah God instructs the Israelites, Moses, and Joshua to be “steadfast and strong”. In our house, if we have to say something three times, you had better be listening! Even in the Torah, it’s not often we are told the same thing three times in such a short space, so we had better be listening. In the current context, where we so miss our people and our traditions, it would be easy to think that small breaches are okay, but it is now that we must stay the course, be steadfast and strong. This lockdown or pandemic won’t be over soon, but Judaism only has a few absolute chukim (laws) and pikuach nefesh – preserving life - is the one that trumps all. It’s one of the sayings we have heard often this past two years: “We stay apart, so that when we gather, no one is missing.”
Hazak v’ematz (be steadfast and strong). As we are again prevented from gathering, it is harder to ‘check-in’ with our people. Many are doing it tough. The idea that we are all in it together remains a truism given the virus doesn’t discriminate but it’s also true that some people are burdened by these measures in ways that others are not. These people spent years building businesses and what they thought was a secure future for their families and are having to sit idle and watch it slip away. For some people the isolation is crushing their spirit and mental health in ways that it doesn’t for others. And so, we are back to pikuach nefesh - we cannot gather unless it is to be vaccinated or tested. These are the gathering places in a time of plague. The Torah makes it very clear that during these times we are to remain apart from each other and in complete isolation – we may not endanger another’s life or the community. The longer these measures remain, the greater the danger to people in our community who are suffering under the mental strain. We must do what we must to end it – vaccinate and isolate.
This Torah portion reiterates that we have a covenantal relationship with God, an agreement, a pact. We have our responsibilities and God has undertaken to be responsible to us. When we fail our side of the covenant, the Torah tells us, that God turns away from us. It can feel like that is the case – it might be that God’s face turning away is what happens when our conscience pricks us for falling short of what we know is expected. Be steadfast doesn’t mean dogmatic, it means our moral compass needs to continue to stay at true north and we know when it’s wavering. The desire to gather is strong but steadfast is what is required of us.
Parashat Vayelech falls on Shabbat Shuva, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our peak moment of cheshbon nefesh or introspection. There is no time when we are more focused on an accounting of our year’s successes and shortcomings, or shortcomings and shorter-comings. Where did we fall short? Where did we miss the mark? Where could we do better?
We know in our hearts, the answers to these questions. We need to dig deep to find the strength to live up to our potential. For the coming year, we know where we want to work harder to meet our own expectations and God’s.
“God will be with you. God will not let go of you, nor God forsake you. Fear nothing and do not be frightened.”
Hazak v’ematz – this is the year for being steadfast and strong. Next year, we hope, will be a year for hakhel.