Parashat Vayeilech continues the record of Moses’ address to the Jewish people on the last day of his life. In this parashah, Moses instates Joshua as his successor, finishes committing the Torah to writing, relates to the people the commandment to assemble every seven years to renew their covenant with God, and prepares them for receiving “the poem of witness” that will constitute the next parashah, Ha’azinu.

As we pointed out in the overview to parashat Nitzavim, the two parashiot of Nitzavim and Vayeilech are in most years read together in the public reading of the Torah, this fact supporting the view that they actually one parashah, which is only occasionally split into two. Together they contain the essential features of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people: parashat Nitzavim focuses on God’s side of the covenant, while parashat Vayeilech focuses on the Jewish people’s side of the covenant. Furthermore, this difference in focus is reflected in the names of the parashiot, for the word Nitzavim means “standing firm,” referring to God’s immutable essence, whereas the word Vayeilech means “and he walked,” referring to our never-ending journey of spiritual refinement.

In particular, however, Nitzavim and Vayeilech allude to the two complementary aspects of our own spiritual lives. We all have to learn how to stand firm vis-à-vis those aspects of our spiritual life that require uncompromising resolution as well as how to constantly progress vis-à-vis those aspects of our spiritual lives that require continuous change, growth, and development.

This dichotomy is evident in the Torah itself: whereas the Written Torah is a fixed, unchanging text, the Oral Torah is an ever-expanding, dynamic corpus of explanation of the Written Torah and its application to the ever-changing specificities of each generation. Even the Oral Torah itself exhibits this dichotomy, inasmuch as its constantly broadening expanse of new insights can develop only within the Torah’s own fixed guidelines that govern the derivation of such insights. This is how we understand the sages’ statement that “any new insight that a veteran student will ever derive has already been given to Moses at Sinai.”1

Similarly, the spiritual exercise of prayer exhibits both sides of this dichotomy. The obligation to pray a specific number of times every day, or in specific contexts, as well as the text of our prayers—the liturgy—is fixed. On the other hand, prayer is “the service of heart”2 and is therefore dynamic, inasmuch as the scope and intensity of our emotions are constantly changing and hopefully maturing.

Finally, religious practice—the performance of God’s commandments—also reflects this dichotomy. The number of commandments is fixed at 613, but it is always possible to improve our performance of them, both physically and spiritually, by performing them more meticulously and thoughtfully, respectively.

Thus, all three divisions of our relationship with God3—the study of the Torah, prayer, and the performance of the commandments—evince this complementary dichotomy is evident. The presence of this dichotomy in all aspects of our religious life keeps us mindful of the twin foundations of Judaism: its fixed, unchanging aspects are God speaking to us; its constantly changing and developing aspects are us responding to God.4


The dichotomy alluded to in the names of the twin parashiot of Nitzavim and Vayeilech—in addition to reflecting the two sides of Jewish observance—also expresses the opposite poles of attitude we must cultivate in order to be able to live vibrant, full spiritual lives.

On the one hand, we need to cultivate resoluteness in our commitment to fulfilling God’s will, never allowing ourselves to be swayed by social comment from without or misgivings from within. On the other hand, we must cultivate the flexibility and agility necessary to remain open to new and higher insights.

Thus, the sages teach us, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fast as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in heaven.”5 On the one hand, we are enjoined to be “bold as a leopard” and “strong as a lion” in our steadfast, unshakable commitment; on the other hand, we are enjoined to be “light as an eagle” and “fast as a deer” to fly and run quickly and nimbly from one level of Divine consciousness to the next, higher one. It is not by accident that this statement is quoted at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, which governs the daily life of every Jew.

Normally, it is hard to imagine how we can manifest both attitudes simultaneously. And indeed, Nitzavim and Vayeilech are in some years read separately, in order to reflect the phenomenon that we are not always capable of living both sides of this coin at once. But as we mature in our ongoing process of self-refinement, increasingly binding ourselves to God, who transcends all dichotomies and paradoxes, we can learn how to live both sides of this paradox at once; this is reflected in the majority of years, in which Nitzavim and Vayeilech are read together.

Nowhere is the complementary nature of these two poles of religious life so apparent as it in our relationship with the world at large. When, as is required of us, we venture out of the spiritual safety of Torah study, prayer, and personal performance of the commandments in order to refine the world and disseminate Divine consciousness, our ability to successfully “walk” (Vayeilech) in the possibly antagonistic world is directly dependent on how firmly we are rooted (Nitzavim) in the spiritual home from which we have ventured.6


It is instructive that the Torah describes our side of our covenant with God by means of the idiom of walking. Although walking is a steady, measured form of progress (as opposed to running or jumping, for example), at the same time it distances us totally from our point of origin (as opposed to standing up or growing, for example). Thus, in employing the metaphor of walking, the Torah is teaching us that our relationship with God should be characterized by progress so radical that each new step lands us in a totally different place, that our infinite “return” to Him should continually make us into new people, individuals who have left their former selves far behind.

In the overall context of the Book of Deuteronomy, which, as we have seen, is the book of teshuvah—return to God, parashat Vayeilech thus instructs us how to make teshuvah into a truly transformative experience. This is perhaps why the account of the Torah’s completion7 is found specifically in parashat Vayeilech, even though we would have expected this account to appear chronologically at the very end of the last parashah of the Torah. In order to progress to a new level of Divine consciousness, to a new level of understanding the Torah, we must first “finish the Torah” at our present level of consciousness. We are similarly taught8 that in the afterlife, in order for the soul to progress from one level of Divine consciousness to the next, it must first purge itself of the Divine consciousness it has achieved thus far, and similarly when it progresses from its newfound Divine consciousness to its next awaiting level.

This process is ongoing, and will continue until—and even after—we reach the ultimate goal of teshuvah, the restoration of the world as God’s ultimate home, with the advent of the messianic era and the final Redemption.9