5 Tishrei 5776
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Vayeilech: When leaders of Israel die...
by Daniel Pinner
Dedicated to the memory of Gershon Melech (Gary) Cooperberg z"l, resident of Kiryat Arba and a regular worshipper in the Machpelah Cave for decades, longtime fighter for the Torah and the Land of Israel, who passed away in the first few hours of the New Year 5776. “Tzaddikim, even in their deaths, are still called alive” (Berachot 18a).
This year Parashat Vayeilech is read alone, and is not combined with Parashat Nitzavim; this happens on average in about 40% of years. When Parashat Vayeilech is read alone, it is invariably on the first Shabbat of the year.
Parashat Vayeilech contains the two final mitzvot of the Torah:
The 612th mitzvah is the mitzvah of Hak’hel: every seven years, at the close of the Shmitta Year (which means this month, since the year 5775 which just finished a few days ago was a Shmitta Year), on the second day of Sukkot, when all Israel are in Jerusalem for the Pilgrimage, they assemble to hear the Torah being read (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).
And the 613th mitzvah is that every Jew must write his own Sefer Torah, which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) derives from Deuteronomy 31:19, and which is brought as practical halachah by the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:1), by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoré De’ah 270:1), the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (28:1), and other Halachic codifiers.
These final two mitzvot on the Torah guarantee not only that the Jewish nation as a whole will study and learn Torah; they guarantee also that they will transmit the Torah to the next generation, who will in turn study and transmit it to the next generation, and so on down all generations until the end of all generations.
With these two mitzvot, Moshe completed his mission. This was his final day in this world; he was 120 years old (Deuteronomy 31:2, 34:7), and he had enough time left – just a few final hours – to teach his final Song to the Children of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). And then he climbed Mount Nevo where he died (32:48-49, 34:1), and there God Himself buried him in an unknown grave in an unknown location (34:6).
Moshe had fully earned himself the title “Rabbeinu” – “our Master” or “our Teacher”. The Torah itself testifies that it itself is called by Moshe’s name: “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the heritage of Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).
The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Masechet de-Shira 1; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 15; Tanhuma, Beshallach 10) expands this idea: “Moshe gave his very soul for the Torah, and it is called by his name, as it says ‘Remember the Torah of My servant Moshe’ (Malachi 3:22)”. And Moshe Rabbeinu, by his example and teaching, inspired countless Jews throughout the generations to give their very souls for the Torah.
The Talmud (Menachot 29b) records that “when Moshe ascended into the heights, he found God sitting and tying crowns onto the letters [the ‘crowns’ which adorn certain letters in the Torah-scroll], and he asked Him: Sovereign of the Universe! Who holds back Your hand? [i.e., Is what You have written not sufficient, that You have to add crowns? – Rashi ad. loc.]. He replied to him: There is a certain man who will be at the end of several generations, whose name is Akiva, son of Joseph, who will in the future expound mountains upon mountains of halachah on every tiniest crown. He said to Him: Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me! He said to him: Turn around! He turned and sat behind the eighth row [of Rabbi Akiva’s students]. He did not understand what they were talking about, which threw him into turmoil. But when they reached a certain subject, his students asked him: ‘How do you know this?’, and he told them: ‘It is a halachah given to Moshe at Sinai’. And then his mind was set at ease. He returned to God, and asked Him: Sovereign of the Universe! You have a man like this – yet You give the Torah by my hand?! He said to him: Be silent, for such is My decision”. This was Rabbi Akiva who, too, gave his very soul for the Torah.
The Talmud recounts how Akiva, the ignorant, unlettered, illiterate shepherd, began his transformation into Rabbi Akiva, the Torah-giant:
“He was 40 years old, and had never learned anything. One day he stood at the mouth of a well, and he asked: Who wore away this stone? They told him: The water which constantly drips on it, day by day... Immediately, Rabbi Akiva extrapolated from this, applying the lesson to himself: If this soft [water] can carve out the hard [rock], then how much more so can words of Torah, which are hard as iron, carve out my heart which is flesh and blood! He immediately started studying Torah; he and his son went and sat with the teachers of the small children, and Rabbi Akiva said: Rabbi, teach me Torah!... He wrote the alphabet for him, and he learnt it... He went on to study the Book of Leviticus, and continued studying until he had learnt the entire Torah. He then went to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and said to them: My masters – introduce me to the system of the Mishnah!... And thus did Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua [teach] Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: Akiva – the Tanachic verse ‘he binds up the rivers so that they do not leak out, and that which is hidden he brings out into light’ (Job 28:11) speaks of you! Things which were hidden from people, Rabbi Akiva brought out into light... He was 40 years old when he went to learn Torah, and after 13 years he taught Torah to the masses” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 6:2).
It was Rabbi Akiva who elucidated the words of the Shema: “A person must bless over the bad just as he blesses over the good, as it says ‘You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:5)… ‘And with all your soul’ – even though He takes your soul” (Berachot 54a).
And later, when the Romans enacted decrees forbidding any Jew from teaching Torah, it was Rabbi Akiva who flouted those decrees and publicly taught Torah. Papos, son of Yehudah, counselled Rabbi Akiva caution: “Are you not afraid of the government?!”
Rabbi Akiva answered him with a parable: “A fox was walking along the river-bank, and he saw the fishes darting around. He said to them: What are you fleeing from? They said to him: From the fishing-nets that people cast to catch us. He said to them: Do you want to come up to dry land, and then we – I and you – will live together just as my ancestors lived together with your ancestors? They said to him: Aren’t you supposed to be the cleverest [in the sense of wiliest] of all animals? You’re not clever – you’re an idiot! If in the place wherein we live we are afraid, then in a place wherein we die how much more afraid will we be!”
And Rabbi Akiva concluded: “Thus is it with us: Now we sit and study Torah, of which it is said ‘it is your life and the length of your days’ (Deuteronomy 30:20); is we go and abandon it – how much more will our lives be in danger!” (Berachot 61b).
Sure enough, not long after this the Roman authorities arrested both Rabbi Akiva and Papos, and both were held together in a cell awaiting execution.
“Rabbi Akiva exclaimed: ‘Papos! Who brought you here?’ He replied: ‘How fortunate you are, Rabbi Akiva, that you were caught for the Torah! Woe unto Papos, who was caught for worthless matters!’” (ibid.).
Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to execution; and as the Roman executioner was raking his skin off with iron combs the sun rose, whereupon Rabbi Akiva cried out: “Shema Yisra’el – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”
His disciples exclaimed: “Our Rabbi! – Even now?!”
He told them: “My entire life I was troubled by the verse, ‘You shall love Hashem your God…with all your soul’, which I interpreted to mean ‘even though He takes your soul’. I said: When will I ever have the opportunity to fulfil this? And now that I have the opportunity – shall I not fulfil it?!” (ibid.).
The Seder ha-Dorot cites a tradition that he was born in 3760 (1 B.C.E.) and was martyred in 3880 (119 C.E.). The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 580:2) records a tradition that Rabbi Akiva was arrested by the Romans on the 5th of Tishrei – 1,896 years ago this Friday.
On the words “and Moshe was 120 years old at his death” (Deuteronomy 34:7), the Midrash expounds: “He was one of four people who died at 120 years of age: Moshe, Hillel the Elder, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Akiva. Moshe was in Egypt for 40 years, and in Midian for 40 years, and sustained Israel for 40 years... Rabbi Akiva began to learn Torah at age 40 years, and ministered to the Sages for 40 years, and sustained Israel for 40 years” (Sifri, Parashat Vezot Haberachah 357:7, and compare Bereishit Rabbah 100:10).
Rabbi Akiva (whose cruel death happened at this time of the year) and Moshe (whose death we read of at this season of the year), both dedicated their very souls to the Torah. Both transmitted the Torah to their own generations and to countless future generations.
Both are our inspiration today, leading us to ever-greater heights.