Standing Before the Heavenly Court

Standing Before the Heavenly Court

Mati Kirschenbaum

This week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, has the least number of verses out of all the parashot which we read throughout the year. This is because we usually read it together with the previous Torah portion, Nitzavim. However, this year this parasha is being read separately. It starts with a confession made by Moses, who is aware of his physical limitations.

“I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the [Eternal] has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’” (Deuteronomy 31:2.)

Therefore, Moses was thinking about the need to select a leader for the Israelites, someone who would take the people of Israel into the Land of Canaan and who would act as their commander during its conquest. Moses decides to appoint as his successor his loyal servant Joshua, who was one of the two spies sent to the Land of Canaan who came back from it convinced that the Israelites would be able to conquer it. Joshua is an ideal candidate for this leadership role, since he is courageous and he knows the topography of the areas to which he is supposed to take the Israelites. However, this does not mean that the task he faces is an easy one. This is contradicted by the very words of Moses, who seems to be reassuring Joshua and at the same time also giving him advice, as he says,

“’Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them [Israel’s enemies]; for the [Eternal] your God Himself marches with you: He will not fail you or forsake you’. Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the [Eternal] swore to their [ancestors] to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And the [Eternal] Himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!’” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8.)

The need to choose a new leader for the Israelites is not the only problem troubling Moses, who is preparing his people to cross over Jordan. He is also worried about how the Israelites will behave after he is gone. No wonder; for he remembers how many times they rebelled against him as they were  wandering through the wilderness. That is why Moses orders the Israelites to read the Book of Law during every Sukkot, which is supposed to remind the Israelites of how they should behave. What’s interesting is that Moses is aware that simply reading the Law will not protect the Israelites from bowing down before deities and from immoral conduct. And that is why Moses writes a song in which the Heavens and the Earth are being called as witnesses for the future misconducts of the Israelites. Moses puts the scroll with the words of this song in the Arc of the Covenant.

How are we to understand the statement that the Heavens and the Earth have been called as witnesses against the people of Israel? This means that no evil deed of Israel shall go unnoticed, that all of Israel’s transgressions shall be severely punished. Therefore, this song serves a pedagogical function – it is supposed to remind the Israelites of their rebellious inclinations which sooner or later will push them towards sin.

The idea of a Heavenly Court (before which the Heavens and the Earth are being summoned to testify against us) reminds us of Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur which is now underway, during which we ourselves are standing before the Heavenly Court. What’s more, many of the prayers recited during Yamim Noraim seem to serve the same purpose as the song composed by Moses; their goal is to make us become aware of our failings and their consequences. These prayers are throwing us off balance and their depiction of human nature is riddled with pessimism. One can’t help but wonder whether it wasn’t possible to encourage us to engage in self-reflection in a different, less drastic way, without the need to call the time for reflection Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

After this year’s reading of parashat Vayelech I can’t help the feeling that we – contemporary Jews – are not much different from the Israelites camping by the Jordan river. Just like them we are not always able to behave properly. From time to time we must confront the unpleasant truth about ourselves. This is neither an easy nor a pleasant process, but it helps us get back on the right track.

During this year’s Yom Kippur you might feel overwhelmed by the prayers aiming to describe all the possible transgression one can possibly imagine. If the prospect of experiencing such feelings during the High Holidays seems familiar to you, I encourage you to focus your attention on the similarities between the prayers for Yamim Noraim and Moses’ song. Both our prayers as well as this Biblical song are meant to help us become better people. That is why it is worth reflecting on their message, even if this might be a difficult experience for us.

Today’s Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is traditionally called Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat of the Return to the Eternal. Today I’d like to wish you the courage and the strength necessary to make yourself aware of your flaws in the coming days. Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova – may we be sealed in the Book of Life.

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

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