Torah Portions of Rosh Hashanah and Parashat Vayelekh

By Cantor David Reinwald

This week, we have the opportunity to hear not one, but three Torah portions read.  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we will hear the akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac and the test of Abraham’s will and faith.  This portion has always been a favorite of mine, sometimes drawing surprise from others who say that it has always been a challenging one for them.  I connected with this portion and its story when I was a kid, and there was something about Abraham’s trust in God to lead him through this dangerous trial that grabbed me.  I admired Abraham’s strength and faith that it would all work out somehow in the end.  I think the story is one that represents the trials that we all face and how we work through them, even if our minds get into a haze.  It is clear that Abraham’s mind does cloud over, as he is called twice by the angel sent by God to stop his actions.  “Abraham, Abraham!” it says in the text (Gen. 22:11), and in the trope there is a mafsik, a line which delineates a pause.  These pauses are used only on occasion in the chanting of the text, and when they arise, I often like to stop and see what they are trying to say.  This mafsik is one of the most famous of all of those found in the entire Torah.  It seems to say that Abraham doesn’t hear the angel calling to him the first time.  He is caught in the thick of his own emotional baggage with all that is going on.  After a pause, the angel calls out to him again, and he now is able to escape his mental paralysis to regain control over the situation, knowing that he does have the power to make his own decisions.  I think it is the loss of his own rational authority that makes so many troubled, angry, or upset with Abraham’s erratic behavior.  Yet, when we approach this lesson of the Torah as a story with a moral, like I did as a child and still do, I think we can walk away taking something enlightening for ourselves rather than just shaking our finger at Abraham’s actions, which never were completed.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read from the very beginning of the Torah—Parashat Bereishit.  This portion has an indelible rhythm to it, in patterns that resurface again and again in the alignment of the trope.  It describes the six days of creation in sometimes formulaic patterns, which those of us who regularly chant Torah love, as it makes internalizing the portion an easier task.  Each day ends with the pattern that the congregation loves to chant together, “Vay’hi erev, vay’hi voker” (“and it was evening, and it was morning”), before announcing the day associated with all that the paragraph has described.  It is quite an interesting phenomenon that the description of all of the creation of that day is marked first before announcing what day it is.  It makes us think about time and how we can be totally aware of it at one point, and completely unaware of its passing at other times.  During these days of awe, we are certainly firmly grounded in time as we mark the day of the New Year and 10 days until our day of atonement, Yom Kippur.  We are aware of this as the time of a wake-up call to the sound of the shofar and are called to meditate on the special themes and unique musical settings of our prayer.  And, we are aware of it as being a time of special moments of gathering with our family and friends.  While we read Bereishit as a testament to Rosh Hashanah being “the day of the world’s birth,” I think the connection to the passing of time is one of greater depth and personal reflection.

Finally, over the weekend of Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return), we read the second to last portion of the Torah: Parashat Vayelekh.  This short reading is Moses’ declaration to the people that he will not follow them into the land of Canaan.  It, like in the beginning of Torah, marks time, but places a stamp on the end of Moses’ journey.  Moses, with dignity, hands the reins of power over to Joshua, blessing him with the strength to carry the people forward.  He, perhaps, recognized that Joshua would be leading in his shadow.  While Moses was a humble man, he knew that the people would compare Joshua to him, and so he also passed along the same instructions he gave to Joshua to the people, carried forward by the priests.  He wanted the people to be in agreement with each other to work for their own behalf and to carry on well into the future.  It is both a sad and triumphant moment in our people’s history to read and relive these last few with the end of Moses’ journey, but a tribute to all that he brought to our people.  All three of these portions we will experience this week are profound and carry heavy weight in honoring the Moses’ great legacy, as well of that of Abraham.  This legacy is now the living and breathing Torah, itself.

Shanah Tovah.

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