By Shelley Neese
This week’s Torah portion covers Deuteronomy 31:1 to 31:30. It is titled Vayeilech which means “and he went.”
As the text opens, the people are about to enter into a period of warfare. To take possession of the land, they will first have to fight. Moses assures these timid soldiers that God will go out before them; He will not release them or forsake them. Although Moses is trying to be an encouragement, he is also a prophet and it is impossible for a prophet to be blindly naive.
Moses knows that once the people are in the land and they no longer have to rely on God for their daily sustenance, or to see them through battle, many will grow apathetic and fall away from the Lord. In the period of the judges, they will do “whatever is right in their own eyes.” As the second generation of freed slaves, they were not eyewitnesses to the plagues in Egypt or the thunderous visitation on Mount Sinai.
However, two major things have been put in place to aid each successive generation in their own faith memory: the Torah and the holy calendar. In this chapter of Deuteronomy, we learn that before Moses died, he finished writing down the words of the covenant. He commanded the Levites to place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant so that it could be “an eternal witness.” If the Israelites ever lost sight of their identity, they have the Holy Book to remind them of their unique history and their divine laws.
God also instituted the holy calendar as a way of safeguarding national moments for the Israelites to regularly remember and reenact their story, and also as a method to atone for their sins, both by repentance and ritual sacrifice.
We are now officially entering in to those high holidays. Except for Passover and Shavuot, all of the major Jewish holidays are squished together in the fall. On September 10th, Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. The prayers and readings on Rosh Hashanah reflect a desire to cast off old burdensome sins and start fresh. The ram’s horn, or shofar, is blown one hundred times as a way of awakening hardened hearts and motivating unrepentant spirits. Around that theme of newness and sweetness, Jews dip apples in honey. Also, instead of the traditional oblong challah bread, they eat round challah as a symbol of eternity and the ever-changing seasons. I have also heard it said that the round challah resembles a crown, signifying the sovereignty of the Almighty God.
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, begins tomorrow night, September 18. Leviticus 16 and 23 and Numbers 29 all mandate that the tenth day of the seventh month be set aside as a day of fasting, repentance, study, and prayer. It is the only required day of fasting in the whole of the Bible. Work of any kind is strictly prohibited. Yom Kippur is often referred to as the Sabbath of the Sabbaths. It is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
In Temple times, Yom Kippur was the only day in which the High Priest was permitted entry into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the Ark of the Covenant’s mercy seat. In the Temple’s absence, Jews are supposed to attend synagogue services for most of the day. During the afternoon portion of the service, the book of Jonah is read for its theme of repentance and forgiveness. According to the Jewish sages, if God could forgive the people of Nineveh, how much more so could he forgive the sons of Jacob.
May this new season help all of us to follow the call God has put on our lives. On Yom Kippur, we repent. With Rosh Hashanah, we begin anew. Christian or Jew, this is a faith practice that can strengthen us all.
Shelley Neese is the author of The Copper Scroll Project and President of The Jerusalem Connection.