Vayelech - Strength & Courage in the Face of Loss
Updated: Sep 14
This commentary is written in memory of those who died twenty years ago on 9/11/2001, and in faith for a time of peace for us and those not yet born.
Aware that he is about to die, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor in front of all the people. In a few short verses, he leads us on a journey through a plethora of emotions. Moses lets the people know that God is already aware of the many sins they will commit, but he is also aware that they will eventually arrive, succeed and triumph in Israel.
This portion is “one of seeming contradictions — sadness on one hand and soaring optimism on the other,” Rabbi Berel Wein writes. But how can we use these apparent contradictions in our own personal journey through Yom Kippur, and especially through Yizkor, the memorial service on Yom Kippur day?
An answer can be found in Moses’ interaction with Joshua. After decades of mentoring Joshua, Moses publicly blesses him as the new leader. “Moses summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous… ” (Deut. 31:7)
These words of advice, and the public blessing, are some of the keys to making Yom Kippur that much more meaningful.
It is a true blessing to be mentored or guided by others. And mentorship becomes even more impactful when we are recognized publicly by our teachers and guides. The process of rabbinic smicha (ordination) is a public recognition by teachers that the “student” is now ready and should be accepted by the community. The moment that a person is recognized by his or her teachers in this public way is a moment of transition. It is the simultaneous blessing of both the mentor and mentee as the mantle is passed. As William Butler Yeats put it, “It seemed, so great my happiness, that I was blessed and could bless.” For Moses and Joshua, this public passing of the torch was just such a blessing. Rather than making the death of Moses that much more painful, it becomes a key to transforming the loss of Moses into hope for both Joshua and the people.
Moses’ words give us the guidance of what a mentor needs to always say. Joshua has shown his knowledge, wisdom and value throughout the years, and the great advice that his mentor can give is both simple and deep: “Be strong and courageous.” Isn’t this what we all need to hear as we take on a new endeavor, as we carry the mantle of our teachers?
These words to “be strong and courageous” are a powerfully cogent reminder for all of us this year. Anti-semitism surrounds as never before in my lifetime, but this reading reminds us that we need to be strong, courageous, and faithful Jews in the face of oppressors. Moreover, as this portion is being read on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on this nation on Sept. 11, 2001, we need to remember to be strong, courageous, and proud Americans when confronted with the evils of those who seek to destroy our rights and liberties through fear or violence.
And these are the words that we need to remember this Yom Kippur, especially as we enter the Yizkor ceremony.
Our loved ones have moved on, but they have left us a legacy. We have a responsibility to live in a way that makes them proud and honor what they taught us. We need to allow ourselves to deeply feel the loss of their presence but also rejoice in what we experienced with them and be grateful for how much our lives are a result of their influence and teachings. Yizkor is not just a time to remember the loss, but to be grateful for the relationship that we had with them in life.
I once heard someone come up to a fellow congregant after Yizkor and say to them, “You smell like a newborn baby.” The congregant had cried so hard, had embraced their pain so much, that they had literally been cleansed from the inside out. Because they had the strength and courage to go fully into the pain of their loss, they were able to come out the other side. The Yizkor process ultimately became one of mourning and cleansing, the remembrance and celebration of an important relationship.
This is the public teaching that Moses gives us as he is about to die. Allow ourselves to grieve, to mourn, but also to celebrate the future and what we have learned from those who went before us. A rainbow can only occur after the rain, and we need to let our tears flow so that we can appreciate and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.
May we each have the courage this Yizkor to experience the honest pain of our losses so fully that we can come through the other side cleansed, whole and strong. And may we always honor our mentors and mentees, our teachers and students, our parents and children.
I hope to see you this Wednesday evening at our in-person Kol Nidrei service, which begins at 7:30pm; at Yom Kippur on Thursday beginning at 9:00am; and if nothing else, for our meaningful Yizkor service which will begin around 11:30am. With all that is going on in the world, it is more important this year than ever before that Jews gather together in prayer to mourn our ancestors, renew our souls, and commit to creating a better world for our children and our children’s children.
May each of us, and all of Israel, have an easy fast and be sealed for blessings of sweetness, health and joy in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
September 10th, 2021
5th of Tishrei, 5782