Where Ya Headed?
Moshe is approaching the end of his life. He is about to die and is now giving his final words to the Israelites. This is the context of our Torah portion that we read this week. It starts by saying, “And Moshe went and he spoke these words to all of Israel.” The problem is that the Torah doesn’t tell us where he went, let alone why, and could have simply stated, “And Moshe spoke these words…”
The commentaries offer their various views of where he went, ranging from the practical – he went to each tribe to inform them of his impending demise, to the esoteric – he went and told the forefathers that God is fulfilling His promise to them.
Whatever you may wish to conjecture, the fact that the Torah doesn’t inform us is telling us something in its own right. It does not reveal the destination because perhaps Moshe himself did not know. וילך משה which literally translates as, “And Moshe walked…” or went, is purposefully elliptical and leaves us with a blank because even to Moshe, death is an unknown and he himself is at a loss as to where exactly he is headed.
It happens to be that the first words to the first Jew, Abraham were not only the same, but had this same quality of an unknown destination. Way back in the book of Genesis, when we are first introduced to Abraham, God appears to him for the first time with the phrase לך לך – “Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” And so we have Abraham beginning his dramatic and fateful journey with the words, לך going/walking. And we also have him going to an unknown place since God did not inform him at the outset what his destination was but vaguely tells him, “to the land that I will show you.”
Abraham and Moshe – two bookends of the formation of the Jewish people. Abraham and Moshe – it is hard to name either one of them as secondary in importance to the other with regard to the creation and definition of the Jewish nation, history and experience. Abraham commencing the Jewish narrative at the beginning of the Chumash, Moshe ending it. And so it cannot be accidental that the Torah recounts pivotal moments of these two major pillars of Jewish life in the same fashion and with the same quality of mystery.
It teaches that the life of the Jewish people as an entity, and the lives of each of us individually, is one of לך /going, moving, departing. And not just travelling, but then to a blank, to the unknown and the unfamiliar. It symbolizes the fact that the history of our people has been one of constant movement from one place to another without much foreknowledge of where we will end up. For thousands of years it has been this way as we have been scattered to the four corners of the globe, as prophesied over and over again.
And similarly, on a personal basis, when you look back on your life I am sure you will see the same dynamic. Movement to places or situations that you would never have imagined. Lech/Going… and then a big question mark. Where exactly am I headed? What will the critical decisions that I make in life hold in store for me? The decisions of job, life partner, children, country I choose to live in. We make the choice but have so little foreknowledge of what it really means and where it will take us.
Moving into unfamiliar territory can be a bit disconcerting to say the least. It can create understood anxieties. And so a few verses later in our parsha we get the solution to this concern. Not once but twice, using very similar language, Moshe tells the Jewish people, “But be of good courage and strength, do not fear… because the Lord your God, He will הולך go/walk with you”. (Deut. 31:6) The same word Lech/Go that is used to describe our unknown journey is used to inform us that we are not alone in it but accompanied by God who goes with us, looks out for us and steers us in the right direction. And not only that, but as it states in the second mentioning, “He will walk before you.” (Deut. 31:8) He will lead the way. Even though we don’t know exactly where we are headed, He is both beside us and ahead of us.
There used to be a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “Let Go and Let God.” And this has been the secret to Jewish continuity against all odds for the past two thousand years. And it is the secret to our personal successes and survivals in our daily lives. We don’t always know where we are going, but despite the difficulties, it does all work out in the end. God is next to us and also ahead of us.
We have just started a new year – new beginnings, new journeys. May they all be meaningful, fruitful, successful and with few bumps in the road. And may we never forget who is at the wheel.
Well I looked into a house I once lived in
Around the time I first went on my own
When the roads were as many as the places I had dreamed of
And my friends and I were one
Now the distance is done and the search has begun
I’ve come to see where my beginnings have gone