For the parsha with the fewest number of verses in the Torah, Vayelech is quite busy. (Nitzavim has 10 more verses, but it takes up less space in the Torah.)
Between warnings of bad that may come, commanding about “hak’hel,” finalizing the Torah’s script, empowering Yehoshua, talking to the Levites, the elders, and the people, Moshe is doing well for a man of 120 years.
Yet the setup of 31:14 is strange. G-d calls Moshe and tells him to bring Yehoshua, who is primed and pumped to replace Moshe as leader, “So I may command him.” It would seem that G-d wants to speak to Yehoshua directly, while Yehoshua is standing in Moshe’s company.
Yet we find the next six verses are G-d’s words directed towards Moshe. Of course, G-d’s message is for Yehoshua, instructing him to take heed of the ever-present possibility that the Jewish people will fall prey to the ways of their idolatrous soon-to-be neighbors. Telling Moshe that this will take place after his death is seems superfluous. Moshe is not the one who needs a charge: he is about to die.
In fact, when G-d finally does address Yehoshua in 31:23 (see Rashi and Ramban who point out this verse is G-d speaking to Yehoshua), he is told “Be strong because you are bringing the people into the land, and I will be with you.” What kind of charge is that? If G-d wanted to give Yehoshua strength and encouragement, should He not have directed the words He spoke to Moshe to Yehoshua, concluding His words with 31:23?
It is clear that G-d’s words to Moshe are really His instructions to Yehoshua in disguise. Do you ever find yourself talking directly to one person knowing that a different person, to whom you are really directing your words, can hear you? There are times we do this because we are angry, sometimes out of sarcasm and cynicism, and sometimes out of respect for the person whom we are addressing.
G-d addresses Moshe directly out of respect for the human being who transcended every mortal passion, who developed the most extraordinary relationship with the divine. It seems to be a wistful message.
Perhaps G-d is saying, “Moshe, you have been the glue that has kept this stubborn people devoted to Me. I really wish you’d be leading them into the land, but we’ve already been through that. So, please, do what you can to remind them of the relationship we had when you were the leader for forty years. Write down the laws, the narrative, the stories of their pitfalls and your triumphs, and how we’ve had this rocky relationship since we left Egypt. But they must know that I care deeply about them. I know their ways; I know they are easily swayed. But I have outlined for them what they need to do in order to keep Me happy. And if I am happy, I will be good to them. Our unique relationship will guide a world on a path of justice and good deeds. Tell them this, Moshe. Let it be your final message to them.”
As an afterthought, “Yehoshua. You heard what I said. It’s your job now, and you’ve got big shoes to fill. Good luck –– you’ll need it. I’ll be with you.”
Good luck indeed. What is Yehoshua to say? How can he feel confident when he is in effect given such a negative picture? “You’re good, kid, but you’ll never be Moshe.”
Perhaps this is why G-d ends off his instructions saying, “I’ll be with you.”
Moshe writes Torah scrolls on his last days on earth to serve as an ever-present reminder of the miraculous experience of the survival of the Jewish people in the desert, through G-d’s benevolence and good graces.
Like Yehoshua, we have to trust and believe that G-d “will be with us,” that G-d “is” with us. We have a task in this world. We have Torah, mitzvot, righteousness, justice, kindness and compassion. We are lovers and seekers of peace. Jealousy does not become us, and we certainly do not look down upon others who are less or more fortunate.
And sometimes we need to be able to hear the message, even if we believe the speaker is not talking directly to us. The only way we can succeed is if we remember that G-d is with us.
This column first appeared in 2008.