Vayelech by David Hartley Mark

Moses gives Joshua and the Israelites a final exhortation and prophecy about crossing over Jordan and defeating the Canaanites: “Chazak veh’eh’matz—Be strong and courageous; God will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut. 7-8, adapted). Moses completes the writing of the Torah, except for the last few verses, which speak of his death. Joshua must add those; no prophet, not even one as great as Moses, chief of the prophets, who spoke with God panim-el-panim, face-to-face, can know the day of his death.

God appears before Moses at the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, and gives him sad news, both of his own, imminent death, and the prediction that the Israelites, once settled in the Land, will forsake the Covenant by following idolatry. God will punish them by hiding His Face, a theological condition known as Hester Panim (Deut. 31:18), later called by theological philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) the “eclipse of God.” Religious thinkers have sometimes employed this concept as an excuse for why tragedies have befallen the Jews: God punishes them by refusing to protect them.

I do not accept this belief. The majority of historical anti-semitic catastrophes which decimated our people resulted from a misuse of free will by peoples stronger than they. Israel’s overwhelming military strength, compared to its neighbors, stems from a fear of and refusal to be annihilated, and has indirectly led to the Palestinian Conundrum. Over the years, war, politics, failed diplomacy, conflicting land claims, and religion have combined, to result in a Gordian Knot with worldwide repercussions. I have lived with this conflict for all of my life, since I first came to political awareness as an American Jewish teenager during the 1967 War, when Israel’s very existence was threatened. From 1948 to the present day, there remains no clear path to peace, but, as a Jew, I pray, hope, and work for it daily, all the more so during this High Holy Day season.

In the meantime, and forever, we Jews continue our historical journey, from a dim Biblical past to the present world. Our continued existence is the riddle of humanity, and it is our duty to insure that we continue our eternal march. Every Jew can find something in our history, faith, or culture which appeals to them, and which they are able to preserve, adapt, or develop creatively. This is a sacred duty, and one we should never evade.

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”—Rabbi Tarfon, in Ethics of the Fathers 2:21


David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance

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