This year is one of the relatively rare years that VaYelech is read separately from Parshat Nitzavim. Whenever this happens, Vayelech is also Shabbat Shuva. (Take a look at Mincha in your Machzor. You will notice that they only print the reading of HaAzinu for years when Rosh HaShana falls out on Shabbat. This is because in such a year VaYelech is always read with Nitzavim).
I would like to focus on a single Passuk at the beginning of the Parsha that might give us a bit of an insight worth contemplating on Shabbat Shuva. The Parsha begins (31:1) with a description of Moshe Rabbenu’s last day. Moshe informs the nation that he is no longer able to lead them, and that Hashem has decreed that he will not cross into Eretz Yisrael. (2) In the following passuk (3) Moshe tells the people that Hashem will lead them (hu ovair l’fanecha) and that he will destroy the nations residing in Canaan so that they can inherit the land, and that Yehoshua will lead them (once again, hu ovair l’fanecha) as Hashem has decreed.
On the face of it, the Passuk is clearcut. We have before us a simple description of the orderly transfer of power from one leader to another. However, even an orderly transfer is fraught with uncertainty. The Seforno points out that the Passuk is meant as a soothing statement. Bnai Yisrael need not fear the passing of Moshe, for Hashem will lead them into Eretz Yisrael. Am Yisrael, concludes the Seforno, will merit an even greater leader than they have lost.
As you have probably noted, this explanation is difficult to reconcile with the continuation of the Passuk, that Yehoshua will lead them. The Abarbanel, therefore, adopts the approach of the Seforno, but takes it in a different direction. Moshe is indeed calming the nation, but his message is that at the end of the day the leader of Am Yisrael, be it Yehoshua or himself, is really immaterial. In the final analysis, it is Hashem who leads the nation, and the leader is merely a tool. This is of course a constant theme of the saga of Bnai Yisrael in the Midbar, from the time of Chet HaEgel and onward. In his last words to the nation, Moshe once again seeks to reinforce the principle that the success or failure of Bnai Yisrael will be predicated not on the specific leader but on the relationship that the nation Maintains with Hashem.
The Netziv, however, is intrigued by the use of the word “ovair” (lit: to pass) in the context of leadership. (While the Netziv develops his idea in the larger context of our Parsha, I will focus on the specific issue at hand). The Netziv reminds us that in Halachick terminology, the word “ovair” appears in the context of brachot, namely that brachot must be recited “ovair laasiyatan”, immediately prior to the performance of whatever action the bracha comes to mark. When possible, the bracha should be said while starting to do the mitzva and completed while actually performing the mitzva. Example of this would be putting on Talit and Tefillin, or performing a brit mila. When this is not possible, for example when eating matza or blowing shofar, the mitzva should be performed as soon as the bracha is recited. But why is it necessary to use the obscure language of “ovair laasiyatan”? Why does the Gemara not simply describe this obligation simply by using the word “lfnai” or “kodem”, both of which mean before?
The Netziv explains that while both “lfnai” and “kodem” imply that the performance of the mitzva has not yet begun, the word “ovair” indicates that all the necessary preparations have been done and the only thing that needs to be added is the Bracha. (The Netziv derives this from the passukim the Gemara quotes to show that the word “ovair means before. As Yogi Berra would say, “you can look it up”.)
In the context of our Passuk, the word “ovair” comes to teach us an important aspect of the concept of “Hashgacha”, Divine Providence. Moshe is announcing to Bnai Yisrael a sea change in terms of the Hashgacha that they can expect. In the Midbar Divine Providence is characterized by a certain passivity on the part of Am Yisrael. Recall, for example, Yetziat Mitzrayim. In Shemot (13:21) we read “V’Hashem holech lfnaihem”. Note the use of “holech lfnai” rather than “ovair lfnai”. Bnai Yisrael need not doing anything to merit Divine intervention on their behalf. With the death of Moshe and the entry into Eretz Yisrael, that is about to change. In order to merit the Hasgacha that has until now been a given, Bnai Yisrael will have to work, to prepare and to strive, and then, and only then, Hasem ovair lfanecha.
To end here with a pat “Shabbat Shuva” message about striving and then meriting Hashgacha seems inappropriate for a year which began with rioting in Israel, progressed to a concerted terror campaign which claimed the lives of over 170 people in Israel and culminated with the horrific terror attacks which destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon and claimed the lives of thousands. Who amongst us recited “Unetana Tokef” with the same complacency that we might have a year ago? For whom amongst us was the phrase “mi bekitzo umi lo bkitzo” not fraught with tension and grief?
An editorial in Sunday’s New York Times describing the human cost of the tragedy of Twin towers caught my eye. The Times editorialized: “No person is interchangeable with another, but we all understand how interchangeable these Tuesday morning stories might have been if the timing of the attacks…had been different. The dividing line between those who made it out and those who didn’t is inexplicable.” While on its face the Times is undoubtedly correct, we believe that while these things are inexplicable to us, they are, nonetheless, a reflection of Hashgacha, of Hashem’s intervention in the world. Mi Yichye Ume Yamut, that is beyond our control and our understanding. We can only stand before it mute, and mourn. What is in our control is to strive, to move forward and to create the necessary environment for Hasgacha, and ultimately for Geula Shlaima.
Gmar Chatima Tova and Shana Tova