By Rabbi Jon Cutler
“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31: 1– JPS translation based on the Masoretic text.)
“And Moses finished speaking these words to all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31: 1— Alter translation based on the Septuagint.)
Moses is giving his farewell speech because he is about to die. He is giving his final instructions to the people, and he announces to the people that he will soon die. He also announces that he will turn his leadership over to Joshua.
The Torah notes that, during these final days, he wrote down “this teaching,” referring to the book of Deuteronomy. He then gives it to the priests and the Levites for safekeeping. This “teaching,” Moses commands, should be read every seven years during the holiday of Sukkot, the seventh year being the sabbatical year when the land would be fallow and free from the obligation of working the land.
Therefore, every Israelite young and old, women, children, would come together to learn and be re-inspired by the “teaching,” the Torah. It was during the rabbinical period that all five books of the Torah would be read on a consistent basis – holidays, during the week and on Shabbat.
Biblical scholars have pointed out that the verb “Va-Yeilekh,” the opening word of this week’s Torah portion, is translated as “And Moses went.” This is found in our Biblical translation. But in the Septuagint version, it is not written as Va-Yeilekh. It is written rather as “Va-Yekhal,” which translates as “And Moses completed speaking these words.”
It could be that the scribe transposed the last two Hebrew letters leaving us with two different meanings, two different verbs. From a practical and literary perspective, and Moses “completed” rather than “went” makes more sense.
After all, where was it that Moses went? The Torah doesn’t elaborate. Commentaries from Rashi and Ibn Ezra say that Moses went to each tribe to bid them farewell before he died. He also wanted to demonstrate that, although he still had the strength, he was now no longer permitted to assert any leadership. His authority had been given to Joshua. So, he went from tribe to tribe to tell Israel they were in capable hands.
Still the phrase “And Moses went …,” even with the commentaries, leaves us questioning. The commentaries supply us with an interesting, homiletical answer to the question: Where did Moses go? On the other hand, the reversal of two letters might give us a fuller and perhaps more accurate understanding of what Moses did on the last day of his life, “And Moses completed and spoke these things to all Israel,” instead of reading: “And Moses went …”
But relying on an alternate reading from the Septuagint doesn’t help either because the same question can be asked. What did he complete? Was it the Book of Deuteronomy?
However, the opening verse in this week’s Torah reading challenges us into thinking more deeply about life, the end of life and the completion of tasks.
I would like to suggest that the opening words, the play between “went” and “completion,” might be both accurate: “Went to complete.” In the phrase “went to complete,” this is a lesson in life.
Moses recognized that his life was about to end. Before he died, he needed to complete tasks that were left undone. He would never be able to finish those tasks. Yet the Torah tells us that Moses was still trying to attempt those tasks. He was not as physically able as he once was. He told the people of Israel that he is not capable to be active any longer and that he could not come and go as he did before.
Rather, Moses’ life was coming to end, but it did not mean it was the end of his journey. He would always be present amid his people in the generation and generations to come. His words would resound for millennia. He would always continue to be the teacher and lawgiver for all those succeeding generations just as he was during his 40-year leadership of Israel.
The opening word “Va-Yeilekh” teaches us that the purpose of life is not completion but the need for a continual pursuit with the result of leaving behind living thoughts and vibrant ideas, lessons about life and walking in the ways of righteousness. This will revitalize descendants and inspire them.
Moses still lives through the words of the prophets, the law and the rituals and wisdom of the rabbis. Moses lives in the hearts of every Jew who picks up a Torah and studies it. Though he was preparing himself to die, his “Va-Yeilekh” truly never ended, and the “Va-Yekhal” was never really completed. Every time we read and study Torah from year to year,
it is never “Yekhal,” or completed, because we are always becoming.
And at the same time, “Va-Yeilekh — And Moses went” is pertinent. For in our comings and goings, it is what we leave behind. As we go through life, we must face our own mortality. As in the case of Moses, our sojourn on this earth is temporary. As such our lives are never completed. It is a journey.
“It is not your duty to complete the work (of the world), but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Hillel translation) Source: Talmud, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:21, attributed to Rabbi Tarfon.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.