Parashat Vayelekh

The Song of Humanity

Song can remind us of our authentic selves and our genuine power.

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We often read Parashat Vayelekh on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Fittingly, this parashah deals with sin and repentance, with becoming lost on our way and returning to our true selves.

In the parashah, God foretells Israel's future sins and their consequences, how they will turn to other gods and then be overtaken by suffering, leading God to say, "anokhi haster astir panai--I will surely hide my face (Deut. 31:16-18)." The hidden face of God, the classic theological expression of the presence of suffering and evil in the world, here seems to be a response by God to the sins of Israel, a punishment for their misdeeds.

american jewish world serviceThe Hasidic master, Rebbe Ephraim of Sudylkow, understands this passage differently. Carefully re-reading the Hebrew, Rebbe Ephraim separates the phrase into two sections and reinterprets the implications of God's actions. When anokhi haster--the I-ness of God--is hidden through our entering the slumber of self-deception and idolatry, then astir panai--[God's] face will be hidden.

When we forget our values and our humanity, we obscure God's holiness from the world; then God's face, God's true presence, is hidden from us. When we pervert what is just and right through the pursuit of that which is not the true center, we cause God's presence to disappear, not as punishment, but as consequence.

Wealth & Complacency

The Torah explains that this turning away will occur when the people of Israel "eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods (Deut. 31:20)." It is through complacency and an absorption in wealth that Israel will lose sight of the locus of divinity and the genuine values that flow from it. And this prophesy has come true.

Our modern consumer society affords us wealth that often engenders precisely the indifference and false pursuits that our parashah describes. Caught up as we are in material gain and upward mobility, we often lose sight of our true values. As we spend money on clothes, cars, coffee, and all the other goods we consume, do we take the time to see how our lifestyle conforms to our deepest values?

Do we check the source of the products we consume, where they are made and how? Do we consider the nature of our work and whether it brings healing or suffering to the world? Do we consider our investments and whether they meet our ethical standards? Do we give away the ten percent of our income that Judaism expects? Can we genuinely ask ourselves how we earn and spend money, not in the sense of self-denying guilt-ridden asceticism, but with a gentle and wise questioning of how we are living out our core ideals and whether we are hiding or revealing God's face?

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.