Parshas Vayeilech: Dying with Dignity and Purpose

Parshas Vayeilech: Dying with Dignity and Purpose
by Dr. Aaron Kershenbaum
photo from pxhere.com, Robin Jacob

I have, from time to time wondered why God chose Moses to serve in his unique role as the giver of the Torah and the person who led the Jewish People to the Promised Land. Surely Moses was a great man, but there were many other great men as well. What made Moses so special, so unique, that God entrusted him with what can be argued to be the two most important events in Jewish history? And what can we learn from his life and his death?

In Parshas Vayeilech we find Moses at the end of his life. He is confronted by terrible disappointment: the fact that he will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. Most men would be crushed by this, especially after having lived faithfully in the service of God. And even in the absence of this disappointment, he is also confronted by the certainty of his imminent death. Many people would, in sadness and frustration, withdraw from life and stop doing anything meaningful.

But this is not what Moses did. He “went forth,” vayeilech, and spoke to the Children of Israel imploring them to follow in God’s ways. He told them of the blessings that would accrue to them if they live righteously and the curses that will follow them if they do not. And, he did this despite his knowledge that they will not do so, at least in the short term.

Moses’ faith in God is unshakable, even when confronted by the disappointment of not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel and by his inability to make the people consistently follow God. He continues to the very end to do all he can to achieve the goal he has devoted his life to – to help guide the people to follow a better path.

Another thing we can learn from Moses’s actions is that it is important for the old to make way for the new. Moses thus tells the people that Joshua will be their new leader and that they should follow Joshua into the Land of Israel and, like Joshua, follow God’s commandments. Moses points out that Joshua is God’s choice as well as his own, and as such, helps ensure the continuity of the bond between God and the people.

Parshas Vayeilech has always held a special meaning for me. It was my Bar Mitzvah parshah and I take its message to heart very personally.  When I was younger, my life was very active and fulfilling. I was married and had two children and a Ph.D. before my 28th birthday. I had many close friends and supervised many Ph.D. students. My research helped build the internet. I ran marathons.

My life today is very different. I still love my family and am close with them; but most of the rest is just memories, so it is very important to me that I take Moses’s message to heart and continue to do meaningful things. I still teach a little bit. I pass on what wisdom I can to my children and grandchildren. I interact with my friends. It’s not what I used to do, but it is still satisfying and gives purpose to my life.

As I grow older, I reflect on one of the greatest principles in Judaism – v’chai bahem, that is, “You shall live by them [the commandments].” This is often used as a proof text for p’kuach nefesh, the preservation of life, but as we see here, this principle can be taken even farther. We are told to live life to the fullest, doing all we can to make the world a better place, right down to the very end.

Yeshiva educated in his early years, Dr. Aaron Kershenbaum received a Ph. D. in Electrical Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

His professional career included pioneering work in the field of digital communications for companies including NAC and IBM. In addition to serving on the faculty of his alma mater, Dr. Kershenbaum supervised Ph. D. theses, held professorships and conducted research in the fields of technology and medicine/epidemiology for several well-known universities.

He and his wife, Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, have two sons and three grandchildren, with whom he enjoys solving mathematical problems

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