Category Archives: Vayelech

The Harder They Fall (Vayelech)

The Harder They Fall (Vayelech)

Strength instead of being the lusty child of passion, grows by grappling with and subduing them. -James Barrie

Perhaps one of the greatest leaders the nation of Israel ever had, after Moses, is his successor, Joshua. Joshua is prominent early in the biblical narrative. We see Moses selecting Joshua to lead the Israelite armed forces against the Amalekite ambush shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the desert journey, we see Joshua at Moses’ right hand, his aide-de-camp, his devoted disciple.

God Himself names Joshua as Moses’ successor when Moses pleads with Him to ensure that Israel will continue to have a mortal leader after God decrees his death. Joshua is the divinely ordained successor to Moses and his subsequently miraculous and powerful conquest of the kings of Canaan prove his suitability for the role.

However, the Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 31:7, wonders as to a particular refrain that is repeated constantly regarding Joshua. Moses and then later God, as well as the nation of Israel, repeatedly tell Joshua “Be strong and of good courage” – Chazak ve’ematz. Why does Joshua, who was clearly a great man, need such repeated encouragement? It would make more sense to offer a weak, untried leader such ongoing support. Why did a proven, accomplished, and seasoned leader such as Joshua require such reassurance?

The Chidushei HaRim posits that it was actually Joshua’s greatness that was his Achilles Heel. Joshua was such a great man, that the slightest infraction might have spelled his doom. When one reaches the level of the fully righteous, the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to their otherwise saintly behavior and can bring with it significant negative consequences.

A greater person is held to a greater standard. The Chidushei HaRim states that if such a person were to deviate as much as a hairsbreadth from God’s directive, it could completely doom them. Therefore, ironically, the greater a person is, the more protection and support they require. Hence the need for the repeated instances of God, Moses and the nation supporting Joshua with the refrain of Chazak ve’ematz, be strong and of good courage.

May we all be providers and recipients of strength and support, no matter what level of greatness we’re currently at.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To Eviation’s first test flight of their prototype all-electric airplane.

Lonely Leadership (Vayelech)

Lonely Leadership (Vayelech)

The leader can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control he must exert. -Vince Lombardi

Joshua, Moses’ disciple, is about to take over the reins of leadership. Moses knows that the Jewish people can be unruly. Moses, the most humble of men, gives Joshua some parting words of encouragement:

“Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall bring this people into the land that God swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them.”

The Bechor Shor explains that there is another layer of meaning in Moses’ directive. He says that Moses is advising Joshua not to lead the people of Israel alone, but rather to solicit and involve the nation’s elders in his decisions as well. Moses, who was characterized by his humility is telling Joshua to lead with humility and to share his leadership role with the elders.

Interestingly, at the end of the same chapter, God addresses Joshua with almost the same language with one minor difference that the Bechor Shor picks up on. Moses had used the word “Tavo,” God says “Tavi.” Both mean that Joshua will bring the people into the land. However, the word “Tavo” is passive, and would be more accurately be translated as “you will be brought,” while the word “Tavi” is active, meaning “you will bring.”

The Bechor Shor explains that God is giving Joshua a different directive than Moses. God is telling Joshua that there can only be one leader. You can’t share leadership responsibilities. You can’t have two leaders. He compares it to a stew of two partners which is neither hot nor cold. Neither takes responsibility, letting the burden slide onto his partner, with failure the natural result.

God is telling Joshua that he is now the final decision-maker regarding the nation. It doesn’t hurt to consult, it doesn’t hurt to seek advice and build consensus, but at the end of the day, he and only he must make the decisions. He can’t share or abdicate that to anyone else. It is lonely. It is isolating. But that’s what leadership calls for.

May we be granted worthy leaders and may their loneliness be lessened.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To Chabad of Southern Nevada for their indescribable hospitality, generosity and caring. Please continue praying for the continued rehabilitation of my father, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.


Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

The egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief. -George Eliot

Moses is near the end of his monumental discourse, conveying the word of God to the nation of Israel about to enter the Promised Land. He touches on multiple themes and a plethora of commandments, but also repeats certain points, each time with a different nuance.

An oft-repeated theme is the need to obey God with one’s entire heart and soul, as well as the ability to return to God when we fail to do so, as per the following verse:  

“Since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Torah—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” -Deuteronomy 30:10

The Meshech Chochma wonders why in this verse, is a person heeding God and the laws written in the Torah only after they return to God. Presumably, just reading the Torah and being familiar with its precepts should be enough to encourage, convince, and instruct a person as to what their divinely ordained responsibilities and obligations are.

The Meshech Chochma explains, that reading the Torah, or even being familiar with it is often not enough. It is human nature to read into things. To read things and understand it according to our notions. It’s possible to read the Torah and come to conclusions that support our personal ideals and philosophy, but have nothing to do with Judaism. In short, our powerful egos are often the ones interpreting the Torah in a way that satisfies our vision and thinking, but is far removed from the truth.

That is why, the Meshech Chochma states, we first must return to God. We first have to accept, embrace, and be open to true divine instruction. We need to cease the worship of our egos and in turn worship God. Once we have placed our egos in their proper place, then we may have a chance to understand the truth that has been staring us in the face. Then we can be open to what the Torah is truly saying. Once we check our egos at the door, once we return to God, to our spiritual source, then we can start to understand what he’s been saying to us for millennia.

May we remove the blinders of our egos.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,



For the Bar-Mitzvah of Eden Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. -William Blake

Moses was facing his last moments in the mortal realm. He had transferred his authority to his disciple, Joshua. Before he ascended Mount Nevo, where he would see the Promised Land and shed his physical form, Moses gives his final swan song, a prophetic poem, a song both mystical and barely decipherable, filled with imagery, analogies and deep messages; the Song of Haazinu, which he introduces in this week’s Torah reading.

The Berdichever wonders as to why out of all of the Books of Moses, this last portion, the Song of Haazinu, is so unclear. In all the rest of the Torah, Moses generally writes the word of God clearly, plainly, in a way that is easy to understand the simple meaning of the message. Why is the Song of Haazinu so hard to understand?

The Berdichever answers with the well-known understanding that Moses was unique among all those who prophesized. Moses had the exclusive gift of having completely “clear” prophecies, of somehow “seeing” and “hearing” God clearly and being able to transmit that prophecy completely and perfectly.

However, in his final hours, Moses had passed on a measure of his power to Joshua. At that point, Moses was more like our other prophets who weren’t able to perceive God “clearly.” Like the other prophets, Moses needed to rely on imagery and analogies to paint a prophetic picture as opposed to being able to plainly articulate the Voice of God. It doesn’t make the Song of Haazinu any less true or valid. If anything, it makes it deeper, filled with obviously more layers of meaning and mystery.

May we learn to decipher some of the meaning of the Song of Haazinu and uncover some of its important and prophetic messages.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,



To the Torah Ve’Avodah family for a wonderful Rosh Hashana.

Screaming to God (Vayelech)

Screaming to God (Vayelech)

O that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth! Then with passion would I shake the world…  -William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John (Constance at III, iv)

In a few days, Jews of all backgrounds, all around the globe, will congregate in synagogues and temples to fast and pray to God on what is undoubtedly the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. It is a day exclusively devoted to prayer and introspection. There are no festive meals. There are no other ritual obligations beyond fasting and praying.

However, all the praying can lead one to an old question of why pray in the first place. God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, knows what we want and what we need. He has the ability to provide for our every need. We shouldn’t have to ask. And if for some reason we’re not deserving of having our wants or needs fulfilled, then how will prayer help?

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 31:14 explains that the answer depends on what it is we’re asking for. He claims that for most things, just thinking about our needs will lead God to fulfill them, as the verse states, “He performs the will of those who fear Him.” (Psalms 145). Just formulating the thought in our mind as something we need (assuming it’s a real need and not just a desire), encourages God to telepathically draw that thought from our minds and convert it, in His own way and time, into reality.

However, Rabbeinu Bechaye claims that there are three particular areas where merely thinking doesn’t do the job. He says that we need to scream to God. We need to pray to God with such passion and fervor that in a sense God won’t have a choice but to at least listen to us, if not actually answer our prayers. The three areas that require loud, passionate, vocal prayers are for children, for life and for sustenance. The ability to have children, the length of one’s life and the availability of one’s sustenance require more significant divine intervention. It seems that in these three departments there is some predetermined fate. That fate can be changed, but it requires massive spiritual effort.

We need to storm God’s castle with our prayers to effect any change in these three categories. There is a license to scream to God, to plead for mercy, to fulfill our deep need for children, life and sustenance.

May we have the courage, wisdom and strength to voice our prayers, loudly, clearly, meaningfully – and may they be answered with health, with bounty, with joy, happiness and blessings for the entire House of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To a Rosh Hashana with the whole family together.

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

A good leader needs to have a compass in his head and a bar of steel in his heart. -Robert Townsend

Leadership and the struggles around it are an ongoing theme in the Torah. Whether it’s the leadership of a family or of the nation, the Torah reveals to us, the good, the bad and the ugly of those who seek power and those who ultimately wield power.

One of my favorite phrases in the entire Torah is from the parting words of Moses to his disciple Joshua (and subsequently repeated by God to Joshua). Moses is about to die and Joshua has been appointed to lead the stiff-necked people of Israel into the Promised Land and to conquer the entrenched Canaanite nations. Moses tells him “Chazak Veematz” which can be translated as “be strong and courageous,” or as Rabbi Hirsch translates it “be steadfast and strong.”

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 31:7 explains that the ideal Jewish leadership is predicated on a steadfast commitment to the Torah and a resolute determination to enact the principles of the Torah in our lives. In his own words:

“‘Be steadfast and strong;’ this is interpreted in Berakhoth 32b (Babylonian Talmud) as follows: “Be steadfast in keeping the Torah and strong in good deeds”; remain steadfast in looking to the Torah for an understanding of your tasks, and be strong in overcoming any obstacles to the fulfillment of these tasks. Be steadfast in adhering to your principles and be strong in carrying them out: these are the most important qualities required of a leader.”

The Torah is the rulebook of the Jewish people. In order to provide leadership to the Jewish people one must be not only familiar with the rulebook, but embrace it, internalize it and live it, despite the constant struggle and challenges of performing what it asks of us “with all our hearts and all souls.”

May we each be leaders in our own homes and communities.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the candidates of Zehut for their leadership and dedication.


Infinite Willpower

Infinite Willpower

People do not lack strength; they lack will.  -Victor Hugo

neo_spoonThe Talmud states that everything is in the hands of God except for the fear of God. This is translated to mean that we have free will. God controls everything in the world, every atom, every molecule, every action, every consequence. There is only one tiny corner of existence over which God does not exercise His Omnipotence. That is over our capacity to decide. We are born with the innate possibility to choose between good and evil. We have the human gift of electing to do the right thing or not to do the right thing.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) elaborates further on the topic. He mentions that we cannot accomplish anything without divine support. However, what we bring to the mix, the extent of our efforts, is that we need to bring our own “will” or “desire” to the table, along with what he calls an “awakening”. Presumably he is referring to some inner spiritual impetus, some realization of what we need to do, of what the right decision and subsequent action needs to be.

He expands even more and states that when we submit our “will/desire” and “awakening” for public benefit, there is nothing that God likes more.  He cherishes when we use our will, our faculties, our resources for public good. The probability of success is enhanced when we depart from selfish motivations and look out for a greater good.

May we harness our unlimited willpower for good.

Shabbat Shalom and Chatima Tova,



To the leadership of Macabi Tzair for so seriously bringing Torah into their Latin American conference.

Afterlife Conversations

Baal Haturim Deuteromony: Vayelech

Afterlife Conversations

We talk about heaven being so far away. It is within speaking distance to those who belong there. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people. -Dwight L. Moody


For good reason, there is great uncertainty about the afterlife. I have yet to meet someone who has been there and back, who could give a personal account of what it was like. Some doubt its existence as there is no scientific proof. Others may believe in various Hollywood versions, inspired in part from classical poets like Dante and Milton.

The Jewish tradition has much to say about the next world. What’s its purpose, who gets there and who doesn’t, what do we do there, how long we’re there for, and much more.

The Baal Haturim points out an interesting capability we will retain in the afterlife. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 31:1, he cites a conversation between Moses and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), whereby Moses informs them that God has fulfilled his centuries-old promise to them, that their descendents, the Children of Israel, have finally inherited the Land of Israel. The Baal Haturim explains that the above account is the source that the dead talk to each other in the next world.

May our patriarchs and ancestors have good things to say about us, especially as we approach the Day of Judgement.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To the Chazan, Shaul Hochberger, on his divine conversations leading our prayers.

Instant Repentance

Ohr Hachayim Deuteronomy: Vayelech

 Instant Repentance

 “Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.” -General Peyton C. March

We are a generation obsessed with instant gratification. Instant coffee, instant noodles, instant camera, instant messenger, instant relationships. If you can think of it, you can demand it and expect it, instantly.

[There rest of this Torah Insight is at]

The Fiery Baton

Deuteronomy Fiction: Vayelech


The Fiery Baton

The northern wind howled outside the tent. The tent sat in the middle of the camp on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. The clouds that had surrounded and protected the Israelites for forty years were gone. They disappeared months ago, following the death of Aaron, the High Priest. The raw wind and hot sand scoured the pink soft skin of the Israelite tribesmen.

Moses and Joshua were alone as usual, silent in the tent. Moses, standing upright, eyes closed, was in a deep trance yet conscious of his surroundings. He was in the midst of his communion with God. Joshua stood near the tent entrance.

Was it resignation Joshua saw on the face of Moses? At one hundred and twenty years old, Joshua’s master was still a physically impressive presence. His aura was overwhelming. Joshua had served him with unyielding dedication for forty years. He had learned to interpret the minutest facial expressions to get an insight into his master’s thoughts.

No. It wasn’t resignation; it was a sad determination. Moses intended to fulfill God’s will to the last instruction, fully aware of all the disappointments and failures of the last forty years.

“It is you.” Moses opened his eyes and with an indecipherable face turned to Joshua. “You shall lead them into Canaan.”

“I am honored, my master,” Joshua bowed. “But perhaps there are others more qualified?”

“It is your destiny.” Moses smiled as if remembering an old tale.

“But what about Elazar or Pinhas? They are of your family and already priests of God.”

“No,” Moses said and slashed the air with his hand. “Priesthood and kingship can never be shared. It is a disastrous combination.” Moses closed his eyes with a pained look.

“What about Caleb? Caleb has the blood of kings in his veins. He is a natural leader and a master strategist. He would be excellent.”

“Caleb is a great man,” Moses nodded, “and he will be of immense value to you, but it is you Joshua, you and only you who will lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.”

“I have always been your assistant. How can I now lead?”

“Enough!” Moses roared. “You would deny God’s wishes in this?”

“I serve and obey.” Joshua’s body shook for a moment as he bowed again to Moses.

“I know your fear and your hesitancy. I resisted this burden more determinedly than you. But you must be strong and valiant. God has chosen you by name and He shall be with you as He has been with me.”

“Am I not right to fear?” Joshua asked. “I have been next to you through all the travails. The battle with Amalek, where you were barely able to stand on your own. I was with you when the burden of leadership was so heavy you begged for death. I was with you at each rebellion, when God repeatedly desired to wipe us out. And it was only you, my master, you who stood up to the Almighty. You who spoke with God face to face as no mortal has and no mortal will. How can I hope to take your mantle? To take this fiery baton from you.”

“Just as God helped me defeat Og and Sichon, so will He help you defeat the kings of Canaan. Just as we have set out tribal allotments for Reuven, Gad and Menashe on the east of the Jordan, so will you succeed in allotting the rest of the tribes in Canaan.”

“But you are able to speak with God. I am not.”

“The era of Instruction shall indeed end with me. But you will begin the epoch of Prophecy.”

“God shall speak to me?”

“When He needs to.”

“What if I fail?”

“Success and failure are in the hands of God. We can only strive. Strive with all our might, but the striving does not ensure success. You will do a good job, Joshua.” Moses closed his eyes. “I see you defeating the Canaanite kings and setting the borders of the tribes. There will remain pockets of resistance. The whole land will not be conquered in your day. No, that will only occur long in the future. But the Children of Israel shall follow God all the days of your life.”

“You comfort me, my teacher.”

“Let me do more than comfort you. Let me show you. Take my arm.”

Joshua clasped the right forearm of Moses. Moses’ hand wrapped around Joshua’s forearm. They both closed their eyes.

Joshua saw images flash across his closed eyelids. The walls of a fortified city tumbling down. Giants slain by Caleb. An entire platoon of soldiers abandoning a fortified city and caught by an Israelite ambush. King after king and city after city falling to the Israelite onslaught. The lords of Canaan fell before the Israelite tribes like wheat under the scythe.

Moses let go of Joshua’s forearm. Their eyelids fluttered open.

“You will do well, Joshua. Remain strong and valiant and you will succeed. Are you ready?” Moses asked, looking deep within Joshua’s eyes for a hint of any weakness, any hesitancy; any clue that Joshua was less than God’s new chosen leader.

But Joshua’s eyes reflected the steely resolve that Moses knew was there all along.

“I am ready.”

* * * * * *

Biblical Sources:

Deuteronomy Chapter 31


1 And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel. 2 And he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; and the Lord hath said unto me: Thou shalt not go over this Jordan. 3 The Lord thy God, He will go over before thee; He will destroy these nations from before thee, and thou shalt dispossess them; and Joshua, he shall go over before thee, as the Lord hath spoken. 4 And the Lord will do unto them as He did to Sihon and to Og, the kings of the Amorites, and unto their land; whom He destroyed. 5 And the Lord will deliver them up before you, and ye shall do unto them according unto all the commandment which I have commanded you. 6 Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them; for the Lord thy God, He it is that doth go with thee; He will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.’ 7 And Moses called unto Joshua, and said unto him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt go with this people into the land which the Lord hath sworn unto their fathers to give them; and thou shalt cause them to inherit it. 8 And the Lord, He it is that doth go before thee; He will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee; fear not, neither be dismayed.’


Joshua’s resistance and hesitancy to the appointment mirrors that of Moses himself and God’s anger in the beginning of Exodus.

The objection of Moses against handing leadership to priests relates to that eventual occurrence in the Hasmonean dynasty where the priestly line also took over kingship with disastrous results.

Caleb is of the Judean royal tribe and we do see more of him down the line.