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Parashat Vayelech 5776 — 09/16/2015

Parashat Vayelech 5776 — 09/16/2015

Deut 31:1 – 31:30

I’m pretty sure Parashat Vayelech is the shortest in the Torah at a mere 30 verses. It is read separately from Nitzavim this year because there is an “extra” Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and if we combined them we’d get to Parashat Bereishit before Simchat Torah!

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. We are all looking forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to the fast and the long services of Yom Kippur. I know I always do – in the days leading up to Yom Kippur I always add a little prayer for Gd to get me through the day in one piece. Yet Yom Kippur always winds up being a day of exaltation; we transcend our everyday selves and get in touch with our spiritual essence – something that we really should be doing on a regular basis after all – and hopefully that contact remains with us after Neilah in the form of reordered priorities and improved behavior.

In our parashah, the Torah is described as a “song.” Rav Kook explains:

Just as the beauty of song stirs the heart, so too, the special power of mussar literature lies in its ability to awaken our inner sensitivity to the divine nature of Torah. This emotive preparation is essential, as only the pure of heart are successful in penetrating the philosophical foundations of the Torah.

Mussar literature is literature that focuses on improving one’s character traits – developing positive traits like gratitude, kindness and humility, and getting rid of the opposite ones. It is almost entirely focused on interpersonal relationships – for it is in the area of interpersonal relationships that we generally need the most growth! Gd may be demanding, and, since He is invisible, we often become quite accomplished at ignoring Him and His demands, yet it is easy to at least profess to love Gd and want to draw near to Him. Sometimes loving our spouse or children, or boss or co-workers, provides a much different challenge. It is exactly with someone who is quite visible, quite demanding, and right in your face, that we must learn to control our emotions and act properly.

I think Rav Kook’s point here is that the Torah’s wisdom is not easily mastered, perhaps not able to be mastered at all, unless the heart is prepared – open to receiving that wisdom. And the way we open the heart is by treating one another with kindness and compassion. Behaving in such a way is both a technique for evolution, and a signpost of our progress. The more we can train ourselves to behave towards one another properly, the more refined our soul becomes, the more it sees on the level of unity, rather than diversity. And when we have grown to the point that such behavior is natural to us, then we have achieved a state where we have negated our own small self to the point that we can begin to absorb the absolute wisdom that is contained in Torah.

In the prayer Sh’ma koleinu in the weekday amidah we ask Gd reikam al t’shiveinu – do not send us away empty. It has always struck me that for this prayer to make any sense, we have to approach Gd “empty.” If we come before Gd “full of ourselves,” and ask Him not to send us away empty, all Gd has to do is send us back the way we already are! Simple! But if we leave our egos at the door of the synagogue, if we strip away our preconceived notions, our prejudices, if we come before Gd as innocent and open as a new-born babe-in-arms, then Gd can begin to fill us up, with wisdom, with love, with happiness.

In a few days we’ll have a precious opportunity to come before Gd without most of the trappings of our “normal” life – we don’t have to think about eating, drinking, washing – we just ignore our bodies to the extent possible for 25 hours. The better use we make of that time to allow Gd into every facet of our lives, the more spiritual elevation we will carry forward with. Our spirit is eternal – let’s make sure to make nourishing it our priority!