One great day at a time | Parashat Vayelech

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Rabbi Emeritus Sinai Temple, Springfield, Massachusetts

Here’s the amazing truth.  Wherever you are around the globe as you read these words and look at the moon, you will see what I see in New England.  A small crescent.  A while sliver.  It’s a “new moon” for all of us, but it’s also a special new moon because it is the first new moon of the Jewish New Year.

Think “New Year” along with me and we can even discover something quite appropriate in this week’s Torah portion.  We are reading Deuteronomy Chapter 31 this Shabbat.  It is a brief but powerful chapter in which God repeats that Joshua is to succeed Moses as leader of the people.  Moses is also instructed to write down his various teachings.  Moses is also told quite ominously that the people are likely to stray from the covenant after he is gone.

Nevertheless, Moses does not appear to be depressed as this Torah portion unfolds.  He rather focuses on how momentous the moment of transition can be.  So, he begins Deuteronomy 31 by declaring, “Today, I am 120 years old.”

Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, notes that Moses uses the word “today” and wonders why that choice of wording.  Rashi answers that Moses speaks this way because that particular day was the day on which the days and years of Moses became full.  He was born on that very day and was about to die on that day as well.

There could hardly be a more important day than that day.  It was the day that mattered above all other days.  That day would make all the difference.

I think the same holds true for all of us.

Today – only a few days after Rosh Hashanah – is also the day that matters in our lives.  We can use it well or we can waste it.  We can make it shine or we can let it be no more than a few hours for breathing, eating, and sleeping.

Today can be one of the first days in the New Year when we live out the promises we made on Rosh Hashanah.

I’m reminded of the teaching from the Mishnah.  In Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Eliezer advises his students to repent one day before their deaths.  Why such somber advice?  Since one never knows what lies ahead, Eliezer believes we need to behave as if any day might actually be our final day.  We need to live the day we have as if it really was all we had.  We need to give it our all.

And there we have what has to be the great teaching of the Jewish New Year season.  Live this day with all your heart and soul.

Grab it.  Grasp it.  Make it the best you can.

I love the wisdom of another medieval teacher who said our days are like scrolls, write on them only what can make you and others proud.  (Attributed to Bachya ibn Pakuda 1050-1120.)

The orientation makes sense to me.  As I consider that tiny moon up in the sky, I’m reminded that it will grow.  Time will pass no matter what I do or don’t do down here on earth.  But the whole point of Judaism is to convince us that we are more than mere spectators.  Like Moses, we can affect what happens to us and around us.  We can lead.  Sometimes we can follow.  We can comfort others.  We can inspire others.  We can listen to those in needs.  We can teach.  In our own way, I know Judaism believes we can bring blessings to the world.  We can make matters better because we are alive.

And that’s how I want to feel on this first Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah.

Not overwhelmed but empowered.

In fact, it’s not only “this” day that is significant.  As a Jew, I believe that every day offers the promise of accomplishment.  If yesterday was perhaps not what I wanted it to be, I have the opportunity to do better this day.  And should today not work out as I wish, there really is tomorrow and the day that follows tomorrow.

Maybe that is why the very first portion of the whole Torah is a portion based around days.  It comes from Genesis Chapter One which tells the story of creation in terms of how the world came to be day by day.  Of course, the writer of this drama could have imagined it in a number of ways.  The focus could have been on what was created rather than when the particulars of the universe came into being.

Except for the fact that telling the creation story day by day also allowed the writer to have God proclaim that each creation day was good.  That little phrase launches the whole Jewish enterprise with our belief that every day after creation can also be good.  Some days can even be very good.

As the year 5780 gets underway, that is how I begin.

Every day has potential.  Every day can be the beginning of something good.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).