Parshat Vayelech: “Vayelech Moshe – and Moshe went”: The Man Who Remained Youthful Until the Day He Died
Moshe Rabeinu’s “going” from the People of Israel, followed by the conclusion of the Five Books of Moses, offers a bird’s-eye view of Moshe’s lifetime, and teaches us one of the most important lessons that can be taken from this great man and his personality: just as Moshe retained his childness and youthfulness, we, too, should preserve ours.
But before we delve deeper into this notion, here is an important insight pertaining to the entirety of Moshe’s lifetime and to The Five Books of Moses:
“And the Lord said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in Man… therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.” (Genesis 6, 3)
Interestingly, the only person in the entire Bible of whom we are told that his life spanned one hundred and twenty years was Moshe Rabeinu. This gives another dimension to the expression Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moses. Moshe was not only the one who received the Torah, who gave the Torah and who wrote the Torah, but in many respects, he is also the protagonist of the Torah – not only from the start of the book of Exodus, but right from the very beginning of Genesis. In fact, Moshe is already hinted to in the beginning of the Torah, and upon his death, at the age of 120, the Torah comes to a close.
I wish to focus on one of Moshe Rabeinu’s traits which surfaces time and time again in many of the stories of the Torah – Moshe is an eternal child, remaining youthful and childlike until the day of his death.
“And Moshe went….and he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day…'”
” And Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.”
When reading these verses recounting Moshe’s death, the description the Torah gives of his childhood comes to mind, from the time he was conceived and born, until he was saved by the daughter of Pharaoh and his own sister. Even as a young child, Moshe seems to have been a blend of childness and youth – “And she opened it, and saw the child; and behold it was a youth that wept”; and also as one who brings together the qualities of a child and the act of growth – “And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son…”
From very early on in his life, Moshe displays both the qualities of child and adult. In turn, he retains his child-like qualities and youthfulness even in adulthood.
The Torah attests to the fact that on the day Moshe died he was still completely active. The use of the word vayelech – which denotes an active going or walking – leaves us with the feeling that Moshe is dynamic and engaged in movement. This freshness of behavior described in our Parsha, as well as the motion of advancing, topped with many other verbs denoting action – “And he went…and he wrote…and he commanded… and he spoke” – fits in perfectly with his physical youthfulness – “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.”
Rabbi Soloveichik describes the ability to retain youthfulness in a wonderful way:
“A strange polarity descended into the initial world of Judaism, a pendulum of sorts that sways between two great ideologies – that of greatness and that of childness. A great man is, in a sense, not a full adult because his spirit is that of a child; he is still infused with a natural enthusiasm, and with an impulsiveness and emotional restlessness. He is both old and young at the same time. One who has matured completely and has grown old, can no longer approach God and draw near to Him. The full-grown adult is too canny…only a child can overstep the boundaries. [As the prophet Hosea says:] “‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him’.”
Rabbi Soloveichik goes on to talk more directly of Moshe Rabeinu:
“The cry of a child tore through the air near the river bank… every time Moshe would beseech and beg God for mercy – the cry of a child would sound. The cry of a child accompanied the great leader of Israel from the Nile to Sinai; from Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Congregation) to the mountain of Avarim… The loftiest crown we can place on the head of a great man, is one adorned with gems of childness and smallness.”
On a similar note, and despite the differences, Reb Nachman of Breslev praises those who are old but still know how to rejuvenate themselves like children:
“… there is no good in being old, even if one is a pious old man or a righteous old man. Oldness in itself is no good. The reason being that every day one must revive himself and begin anew.” (Sichot HaRan, 51)
When talking of the blind beggar in his Tale of the Seven Beggars, Reb Nachman gives a lengthy account of a group of old people who compete among themselves for the title of Youngest-Oldest Man.
A few final words to ourselves and about ourselves:
Our lives are geared towards achieving maturity and turning into adults. In this sense, having childlike traits is regarded as something negative. The child, unlike the adult, may be perceived as one who is irrational, overly emotional and not realistic.
On the other hand, the child is unwilling to succumb to what the adult perceives as the inevitabilities of life. That said, I think we all miss our childhood to some extent. This longing is, in fact, much more than just an emotion; it is a crucial trait which helps us preserve our vitality as adults.
Moshe Rabeinu teaches us that our ability to keep rejuvenating ourselves, rather than grow old and stop advancing and being on the move, depends on our ability to retain those child-like (and irrational) characteristic within us: innocence, stubbornness, unwillingness to accept any given reality and even “throwing tantrums” – the ability to protest and cry and beseech God (as Moshe says of himself, “And I besought the Lord at that time”, “And I fell down before the Lord”) – all of these, enable a person to rejuvenate.
In our educational institutes, this miraculous encounter between elderliness/maturity and childness/youthfulness takes places. The dynamics at play in any given school day involve not only experiences of logical thought, but also incorporate the world of the child and the freedom to ask questions.
May we take a lesson from Moshe’s personality, as well as from our daily experiences in our schools, and implement these in our personal lives, such that we are able to be both elders and children at the same time.