Parashat Vayelekh 5769 – Shabbat Shuva (on approaching God and repentance)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

At the start of Parashat Vayelekh, Moses reveals to the people that he will not be leading them into the Land. For forty years Moses has been the intermediary between them and God. The Israelites are now learning, that, in the future, there will be no-one who will speak to God on their behalf, as Moses has done for their whole lives.

What will they do? How will God speak to them? How will they speak to God? Who will persuade God to spare them the next time that they mess up? The anticipation of Moses’ death must have been daunting for the Israelites. The only direct contact that they hadwith God was at Sinai, where they were so terrified that they asked Moses to intervene. (Exodus 20:16) How could they be expected to maintain a relationship between themselves and God without Moses? How would they bridge this chasm between themselves and God?

This problem is just as pressing for many of us today. God often seems very far away.

For some, this is caused by bewilderingly tragic events in a world that is meant to be under God’s protection. In the face of seemingly needless catastrophe, it can be hard to discern the presence of God.

For others of us, when we think of God analytically, it is a God that is so abstract, so transcendent, that we can hardly imagine being able to approach God. We, who are part of this physical world are so fundamentally different from God, how can there be a meaningful relationship?

There are also many of us who struggle to understand what God there is at all, and feeling close to an amorphous unknown may be harder still.

But Moses tells the people not to worry, because:

יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ

It is God who will cross over in front of you (Deuteronomy 31:3)
Although Joshua takes Moses’ place as national leader, the Israelites are nowto have an unmediatedrelationship with God: God will personally lead them into the Land. Before they even get the chance to mourn the departure of Moses, and the contact with God that he made possible, they are told with these words that an even closer connection with God is immanent. This must seem, at the least, counter-intuitive to the Israelites.

However, Rav Soloveitchik teaches that with the loss of a loved one, comes a chance for teshuva – return to God. (Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World, Sitting Shiva is Doing Teshuva”) He cites the verse in Jeremiah:

מֵרָחוֹק יְהוָה נִרְאָה לִי וְאַהֲבַת עוֹלָם אֲהַבְתִּיךְ

From afar Hashem appeared to me, [saying] I have loved you with an everlasting love… (Jer. 31:2 or 3)

Our distress – whether during mourning, or from theological turmoil – is caused by recognition of the abyss between us and God. But this recognition itself can move us to seek return to God. Seeing this gap is the first step towards bridging it. And, according to Jeremiah’s prophecy, God will be ready to receive us.

This verse from Jeremiah is the second in the haftarah for second day Rosh Hashanah. At this point in the calendar, we have shifted from the reflective mood of Elul to the approach to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, according to Leviticus (16:30),

לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ

 God purifies us and accepts our repentance.

We may wonder how we could reach this stage of closeness to God, when we so often sense such great distance between us. This distance may be because of the evil that we have experienced in the world; it may be because of how we do – or don’t – intellectually conceptualise God; or, as the seasonal liturgy has been reminding us, it may be because of the times that we have missed the mark during the past year. But this verse reminds us that despite this great distance, we can and should make teshuvah – return to God.

More than this, says Rav Soloveitchik, it is davka the chasm between us and God that calls us to make teshuvah. If we were already so close to God – where would there be to go? What changes would we need to make in our lives? Therefore, it is our very struggle to have a relationship with God that can necessitate and drive our attempts to improve who we are.

Shabbat shalom, and gmar chatimah tovah