The events in Parashat Vayeilech occur during Moshe’s final hours in this world:
“Hashem said to Moshe: Behold – your days to die have drawn near; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, and I will command him. So Moshe went, as did Joshua, and they presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. Then Hashem appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance of the Tent. And Hashem said to Moshe: Behold, you are about lie down with your fathers” (Deuteronomy 31:14-16).
G-d had already given Israel 611 mitzvot via Moshe, so as Parashat Vayeilech opens, only two more remained. And these two final mitzvot which G-d gave to Moshe, the two mitzvot in Parashat Vayeilech, ensure Jewish continuity after Moshe would be gone.
The 612th mitzvah is the mitzvah of Hakhel:
Every seventh year, after the close of the 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).
We will merit to perform this once-in-seven-years mitzvah, G-d willing, in Jerusalem in less than two weeks.
The 613th and final mitzvah is that every Jew must write his own Sefer Torah; this is derived from Deuteronomy 31:19 (see Sanhedrin 21b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:1; Shulchan Aruch, Yoré De’ah 270:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:1).
However, since the entire Torah is a single united whole unit, and therefore if even one single letter is missing the entire Torah-scroll is invalid, it is sufficient to write a single letter in a Torah-scroll to fulfil the mitzvah of writing a Torah.
There is a widespread custom that when a Synagogue acquires a new Torah-scroll, the scribe leaves the final few verses unfinished, so that every man of the congregation can write at least one letter in it – a very moving and emotionally powerful experience.
These are the two mitzvot which guarantee that every Jew in every generation will learn Torah. This is the guarantee that the Torah will continue to be transmitted to the next generation, and from the next generation to the generation after them, and so on till the end of all generations.
It is in this context that “Hashem appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud” – the final time that He appeared to Moshe (or indeed to anyone) in the Torah.
Forty years earlier, when the Israelites were yet slaves in Egypt and Moshe, a fugitive from Egyptian justice, was still shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, G-d had appeared to him with the words, “I am Hashem; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as EL SHADDAI [G-d Almighty], but I did not make Myself known to them with My Name Hashem” (Exodus 6:2-3)
The word He used here for “and I appeared” is וָאֵרָא . The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) explains this word to mean ו (“six”) times אֵרָא (“I appeared”): he points out that ו' (six) times, the Torah testifies about G-d that וַיֵּרָא (“He appeared”) to the forefathers – three times to Abraham, twice to Isaac, and once to Jacob.
A brief look at these six occasions can help us understand the significance of G-d’s “appearing”:
“And Hashem appeared to Abram and said: To your seed I will give this Land. And he built there an altar to Hashem Who had appeared to him” (Genesis 12:7).
“And Abram was ninety-nine years old when Hashem appeared to Abram, saying to him: I am E-l Sha-ddai [G-d Almighty]; walk before Me and be perfect” (ibid. 17:1).
“And Hashem appeared to him [Abraham] in Elonei Mamre, when he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day” (ibid. 18:1).
“And Hashem appeared to him [Isaac] and said: Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the Land that I shall show you” (ibid. 26:2).
“And Hashem appeared to him [Isaac] on that night and said: I am the G-d of Abraham your father; do not fear, for I am with you, and I will bless you, and I will multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham My servant” (ibid. 26:24).
“And G-d appeared to Jacob again when- he was coming from Paddan Aram, and He blessed him” (ibid. 35:9).
Six times, then, G-d “appeared” to the forefathers. The word וַיֵּרָא occurs in another seven places in the Torah:
- Genesis 46:29, the reunion between Joseph and Jacob, the sole time in the Torah when וַיֵּרָא refers to a human rather than a Divine appearance;
- Exodus 3:2, when G-d’s angel appeared to Moshe;
- Leviticus 9:23, when G-d’s Glory appeared to the entire nation;
- Numbers 16:19, when G-d’s Glory appeared to the entire nation;
- Numbers 17:7, when G-d’s Glory appeared to the community;
- Numbers 20:6, when G-d’s Glory appeared to Moshe and Aaron;
- Deuteronomy 31:15, in our parashah, when G-d appeared to Moshe in the Tent of Meeting.
So G-d appeared three times to Abraham, twice to Isaac, once to Jacob, and once to Moshe – at the very end of his life. (On the other five occasions, either G-d’s angel or G-d’s Glory appeared.)
I suggest that there is one common denominator which links all seven occasions when G-d Himself appeared to the forefathers and to Moshe: That common denominator is the Land of Israel.
The first time that Hashem appeared to Abraham (Genesis 12:7) was when He promised that his descendants would inherit the Land of Israel.
The second time was when He forged His second covenant with Abraham, in which He promised, “I have given to you and to your descendants after you the Land of your sojournings, the entire Land of Canaan, as an eternal holding” (ibid. 17:8).
The third and final time that “Hashem appeared” to Abraham was immediately before the three angels arrived to herald the birth of Isaac – Abraham’s first descendant – one year hence; that is, when G-d’s promise of Abraham’s descendants inheriting the Land of Israel would begin to be fulfilled.
G-d appeared to Isaac on two occasions: when He told him not to leave the Land of Israel, and when he was contending with the Philistines and the inhabitants of Gerar over the wells of the Land of Israel.
And He appeared to Jacob when he was returning from Paddan Aram to the Land of Israel. It was then that G-d bestowed the name Israel upon him (ratifying the blessing that the angel had given him three chapters earlier), and continued by promising him: “The Land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac – to you I will give it; and to your descendants after you I will give the Land” (Genesis 35:12).
And finally, in our parashah, in front of Moshe and Joshua, “Hashem appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud”. And G-d continues: “For I will bring [the Children of Israel] to the Land which I swore to their fathers, which flows with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 31:20).
The remainder of the Book of Deuteronomy is Moshe’s heart-rending farewell to the nation he loved, sending them into the Land which he loved but which G-d had forbidden him to enter.
Indeed, Moshe’s very last sight in this world was the panorama of Israel as he gazed out from Mount Nebo on the east bank of the River Jordan, seeing the entire Land that the nation would enter just thirty-three days later:
“Hashem said to him: This is the Land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying: To your descendants I will give it. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not pass over to there” (Deuteronomy 34:4).
It was only in these final hours of Moshe’s life, as he was approaching the Land of Israel which he would see from just a few steps away, that “Hashem appeared” to him. With him in the Tent of Meeting was Joshua; and significantly, this was the only time that Hashem ever “appeared” to Joshua – as he was donning the mantle of leadership of the nation and preparing to lead them into the Land of Israel. To be sure, G-d spoke to Joshua countless times throughout the conquest of the Land of Israel; but the Tanach never uses the verb וַיֵּרָא (“He appeared”) to Joshua.
And it was only in these final hours of Moshe’s life, as he gave the nation the two final commandments, the two mitzvot which guarantee Jewish continuity throughout the generations, that “Hashem appeared” to him.
This message resonates particularly powerfully in our present generation. These two factors – Jewish continuity and entering the Land of Israel – have never been so intensely intertwined as they are today.
Once-proud and powerful Jewish communities throughout the exile are being decimated by assimilation and ravaged by inter-marriage; entire Jewish communities which just a generation ago shone as beacons to the entire Jewish world have all but vanished.
Even the great Yeshivot which still appear to be flourishing in exile – Metivta Tiferet Yerushalayim in New York City, the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, Etz Chayyim Yeshiva in London, Telz in Cleveland, Gateshead – these are but shadows of what they were a generation or two ago.
Not since the Exodus from Egypt, when some 80% of the Jews rejected Moshe and his message of redemption, and consequently died in the ninth plague, the Plague of Darkness, have Jews faced such immediate and dire consequences for choosing to remain in exile and rejecting redemption and the Land of Israel.
(This follows several Midrashim: vide Shemot Rabbah 14:3; Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:1; Tanhuma, Vaeira 14 and Beshallach 1; Sechel Tov, Bo 10:31; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 12; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 208 et al.)
No yeshiva in exile is still producing Torah giants on the level of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztz”l who learned in the yeshivot of Slutsk and Shklov before emigrating to America in 1936 where he became Rosh Yeshivah of Metivta Tiferet Yerushalayim;
Of Rabbi Aharon Kotler ztz”l, who studied in Slobodka and Vilna and went on to found Lakewood Yeshiva;
Of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztz”l and of Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d, both born in the USA and both graduates of the Mirrer Yeshiva;
Or Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn ztz”l, the seventh (and some would say the greatest-ever) Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Jewish life in exile is inexorably drawing to its close. Jewish continuity is in Israel – and nowhere else. Israel is the only country in the world where there are more Jews today, and more yeshivot today, and greater Torah-learning today, than there were 50 years ago.
Moshe’s final lesson to us, in those final hours of his physical life, reverberates clearly. How can G-d ever “appear” to any Jew?
– In one way, and one way only: by the Jew coming to Israel, here to build the future for the coming generations.
Daniel Pinneris a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.