The renowned Oxford professor Benjamin Jowett, the great 19th century translator of Plato, was the ultimate paradigm of the ivory-tower scholar. Once, as he was walking across the commons at Oxford, he stopped a student and asked, “Please can you tell me, am I walking toward or away from the cafeteria?”
“You are walking away,” the student responded politely.
Upon hearing that, Jowett said, “Ah, that means I have already eaten lunch.”
No less confounding is the story told about the United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Holmes was once taking a train ride when the conductor came around asking for everyone’s ticket as proof that they paid for the trip. No matter how much Holmes searched he simply couldn’t find his ticket. The conductor, realizing the stature of his passenger, told the judge that he had nothing to worry about, for he was certain that he had paid for his ticket. The judge responded, “My good man, you don’t understand. I need my ticket to know where I am going.”
As we celebrate the last Shabbat of the year, it is appropriate to ask ourselves if we know where we are going on the journey called life. This very question is the subject of the opening verse of parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1). The Torah recounts, “And Moses went, and spoke the following words to all Israel saying to them….”
This wording, “And Moses went,” is puzzling. Actually this is the only occasion in the entire Bible where the word vayelech is employed as the introductory word of an address. Furthermore, the reader must wonder, where did Moses go? The Torah is silent, leaving the reader guessing where Moses was running to on his last day on this earth. To claim he went to address the people of Israel for one last time before his demise simply isn’t acceptable, for we were told in an earlier Torah portion, Beha’aloscha in the Book of Numbers, that when Moses wished to address his people, he would sound silver trumpets announcing a national assembly and everyone would immediately gather to hear him. What then was the uniqueness of this act?
One commentator notes that we must read these words not literally but homiletically. He suggests that the word vayelech refers to the death of Moses. He then interprets the words as follows: “Moses has gone but still he speaks the words unto all Israel.” The physical body of Moses is no longer, but still he speaks to us as if he were alive.
Each of us needs to hear a voice resonate in our heads telling us what is right and wrong. We each need to hear the words of Moses teaching us what we must do, even if we can’t see him in person. The malady of modern man is that he thinks he must see in order to believe. Judaism teaches, however, that what is essential is good hearing. We are the people of “Shema,” the people who hear voices guiding us in our life’s journey. Voices rather than pictures are what guide the Jews through life.
It is fascinating to note that in Jewish life we always talk about our sages of the past in the present tense. In the beit midrash, a Jewish academy, it is standard practice to say, “Rashi says,” or “Maimonides argues.” The voices of the past are alive and well. No wonder the Talmud makes the startling suggestion that whenever a deceased sage’s view is quoted, his mouth moves in the grave. This isn’t meant to be taken literally; rather, the Talmud is teaching us that the influence of our great scholars is eternal.
Vayelech, however, can also incorporate another idea. The great 16th century Italian biblical commentator, the Seforno, says that the words of Vayelech allow us a glimpse into the attitude that Moses had toward Jewish life and leadership. He argues this word teaches us that “Moses took the initiative.” He didn’t sit waiting for the Jewish people to come to him; rather, he went to them.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what better message does one need besides taking the spiritual initiative in life? If we sit back and wait to be inspired by others, inspiration will never happen. The famous mystical treatise, the Zohar, remarks that the word vayelech is in the singular tense, informing us of the courage of Moses. On this day he went alone, without his brother Aaron who was his partner throughout the journey in the wilderness. There are moments in life when we must take the initiative and go it alone, demonstrating our courage and faith in our destiny.
Unlike Benjamin Jowett and Oliver Wendell Holmes, we all need to know where we are traveling, and not wait until we are lost before we discover the right road to take us on our life’s journey.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.