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Vayeilech and Yom Kippur 5780: Don't Just Stand There!

This week’s Parsha begins with an enigmatic statement. Following immediately on the heels of Moshe’s impassioned messages in Parshas Nitzavim, the verse states, “Vayelech Moshe,” and Moshe went [and told the following to Bnei Yisrael], “I am 120 years old today, and I can no longer come and go” (Devarim 31:2). Rashi notes that Moshe was not saying that he cannot physically come and go, but rather that Moshe was explaining to Klal Yisrael that he will no longer be able to lead them, as he is destined to die before they enter Eretz Yisrael. Yehoshua, Moshe’s student, would take over for him from there.

The first Pasuk is strange because Moshe has been standing and speaking to Klal Yisrael now for several Parshios! In fact, there is no implication in the Psukim that Moshe had paused in speaking; this part of the speech is just one of the final chapters. What, then, does the Pasuk mean when it says “Vayelech Moshe,” and Moshe went? Where’d he go, if he is actually just standing in one place and continuing his “last lecture”? Furthermore, if Moshe is explaining to Klal Yisrael that he will be giving over the reigns of leadership to Yehoshua, what is the significance of his statement that he is “120 years old today”? Moshe’s age was not the reason for his stepping down from the position of leader; rather, it was as a punishment for his actions at Mei Meriva that Moshe must abdicate the position.

I heard an idea recently regarding this Pasuk, and the lesson Moshe teaches us with his words, which is also quite fitting for the Parsha’s juxtaposition with Yom Kippur. In Parshas Nitzavim, Moshe notes that the Jewish people are “Nitzavim,” standing, and this is in direct contrast with Moshe’s own posture in this week’s Parsha – Moshe was not standing, he was moving, going. What can this mean and what does this have to do with Moshe’s reiteration of his ripe old age?

Moshe meant to impart a message to Klal Yisrael regarding lifelong growth and change. It is necessary at times to stop, to take stock, to reflect on one’s life and to ask oneself, “Ayekah?” where are you relative to your goals for yourself? This is what we just did on Rosh Hashana, which takes place on the anniversary of the day that Man was created, and on the day that God asked Adam this very question after the sin with the Eitz HaDaas. In order to know where and how to grow and move forward in our lives, we must take time to stop and reflect – one cannot identify where one is holding in life if one is constantly a moving target.

Parshas Nitzavim is read before Rosh HaShana because on Rosh HaShana we stopped and reflected upon our relationship with God and the degree to which we allow Him to be King over our global and personal universe. God is sovereign without our permission, but Rosh HaShana is the chance we get each year to opt into a relationship with Him and accept His sovereignty over our lives, to relinquish control, and to embrace His will. We cannot do this if we do not stop, if we do not just stand, and think, and accept.

As heard from my friend Ariella Azaraf, we are so used to hearing, “don’t just stand there, do something!,” but there are times when our stance needs to be “don’t just do something, stand there.”

Rosh HaShana is such a time. It is a day to be Nitzavim, not in stagnation, but in reflection. Yom Kippur, however, despite appearances as a day of literally standing nearly endlessly in Shul, is a day of action. While it is necessary at times to stop and take stock, as we do on Rosh HaShana and as Klal Yisrael did on the banks of the Jordan river, it is equally as necessary to be either planning for growth or actually in a state of forward motion.

On Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness, and our slates are wiped clean. Certainly the order of these High Holidays is curious – why don’t we go through the cleansing process first and then come to crown God as King from our newfound pristine existence? The answer as many commentaries explain is that in order to even want to be clean, and in order to make plans for continued growth and improvement in the coming year, we must first recognize to what end we are doing it all. Once we have reestablished God as King in our lives and of the universe, once we have stood still and reflected and opted into that relationship, then we suddenly are filled with an insatiable drive to strengthen and maintain that relationship.

Once we have established the purpose of our fasting and repenting and begging for forgiveness, however, that drive is often not enough to lead us to lasting growth. Often, the thing that holds us back most from growth is the belief that we are set in our ways, and that there is no hope that this year, or any year, will be different. Didn’t we make promises to change our ways last year? Didn’t we say, Hashem I trust You and want You in my life? And yet, we neglected our promise – we continued to try to take control of our lives, to struggle to trust Him, to do and say and forget to do and say things to nurture our relationship with Him. We come to Yom Kippur and we say, why should this year be different? We struggle to move forward, we feel despair, and we become cynical, and we get ready to go through the motions, barely believing in ourselves.

Moshe Rabbeinu stood before the Jewish people during his last days on earth and said, I am 120 years old today, and yet I am “Veyeilech Moshe,” I am going places, I am moving, and I can still change and grow, until the end. Moshe warns us that while there is a time to stand there, there is also a time to do something, and it is never too late; we are never too fixed, too rigid, too lost, too hopeless, to grow and change and learn.

To strengthen this point, Moshe tells Klal Yisrael “chizku v’imtzu,” be strong and courageous (31:6), and he also tells Yehoshua, “Chazak v’ematz,” to be strong (31:7). Rav Moshe Feinstein notes that Moshe must be mechazek both Klal Yisrael, the students and followers, and Yehoshua, the teacher and leader, for we all need Chizuk and constant encouragement and strength in our lives at all stages. As Yom Kippur approaches, we must not give up on ourselves or others, and we must turn to each other and strengthen one another, never forgetting that we are capable of growth and change ad me’ah v’esrim!

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