Once the vintage chassid, Reb Peretz Chein, was sitting together at a chassidic gathering with several colleagues. To hide what was then an illegal gathering, they were meeting in a cellar. Their candles had burnt out and the only light was a faint glimmer from the lanterns in the street.

The chassidim didn’t mind. Their light and warmth was internal. The fellowship they were sharing, the concepts they were discussing, and the songs they were singing were powerful beacons.

A chassid passing by on the street heard the sounds of their singing and asked to join. When he was given permission, he opened the door and began to make his way to the cellar. But after the first few steps, he stopped. The darkness was so powerful he could not see where he was going.

“Why aren’t you coming?” the chassidim called to him. “It’s too dark,” the chassid replied. “Just wait,” one of the voices called out. “Soon your eyes will get used to the darkness and you’ll be able to see.”

Reb Peretz took this as an analogy. “That’s precisely the problem with us, he told his colleagues. “We get used to darkness and then it isn’t so difficult to bear!”

We all face spiritual inertia, for it is natural to become comfortable with one’s settings, even when they are dark. But that is only part of the picture. Inside, everyone possesses an urge to progress and face new horizons.

Parshas Vayeilech

Vayeilech, the name of this week’s Torah reading means “And he went,” and points to the need to “go from strength to strength” in our Divine service. This concept is reflected in the narrative which begins the reading. The subject of the verb Vayeilech is Moses. At this point in time, Moses was 120 years old and had attained the highest peaks of Divine understanding. He knew that this was to be the last day of his life. Nevertheless, he was not prepared to “rest on his laurels.” Instead, he understood the imperative for continued progress, and even on this day, he strove to reach new horizons.

Sometimes Parshas Vayeilech is read together with Parshas Nitzavim. As mentioned above, nitzavim means “standing.” Although the two names have opposite connotations, they nevertheless harmonize. For the Torah and its mitzvos are channels of communication between a never-changing G‑d and ever-changing mortals. As such, there are certain elements of our Divine service that are unchanging (nitzavim), reflecting the Torah’s immutable Source, and there are other elements that teach man to use the potential for change in a positive manner (vayeilech).

When Parshas Vayeilech is read as a separate Torah reading, it is read on Shabbos Teshuvah, the Shabbos of Repentance. There is a thematic connection between the two, for in a full sense, Vayeilech implies not merely gradual progress, but radical change. Just as “going” means changing one’s place, its spiritual parallel involves rising to a previously inconceivable level of Divine service.

Similarly, teshuvah involves leaving one’s previous spiritual level and beginning a new phase of Divine service. For teshuvah involves a firm decision to abandon one’s previous mode of conduct, and on a deeper level, to remake one’s personality. As the Rambam explains, a baal teshuvah should feel that: “I am another person; I am not the same individual who performed these deeds.”

Looking to the Horizon

When speaking about the need for constant progress, the verse states: “They shall go from strength to strength, and appear before G‑d in Zion,” implying that the ultimate goal of our spiritual progress should be the Redemption, when we will again appear before G‑d in Zion.

Teshuvah also shares a connection to the Redemption. As our Sages taught: “The Torah promised that Israel will turn [to G‑d] in teshuvah towards the end of her exile, and she will be redeemed immediately.”

It must however be emphasized that the era of the Redemption will not involve a cessation of activity, for “The righteous have no rest, neither in this era, nor in the World to Come.” We will continue to progress spiritually. The difference is that the internal and external tension which presently accompanies spiritual growth will cease, and our advances will be characterized by harmony and peace.