The Torah/Vayelech


Moses (mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis)

As told in Deuteronomy 31:1–30, this is the story of the Torah reading Vayelech:

"Be strong and courageous"


Moses told the Israelites that he was 120 years old that day, could no longer go out and come in, and God had told him that he was not to go over the Jordan River. God would go over before them and destroy the nations ahead of them as God had destroyed Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, Joshua would go over before them, and the Israelites would dispossess those nations according to the commandments that Moses had commanded them. Moses exhorted the Israelites to be strong and courageous, for God would go with them and would not forsake them. And in the sight of the people, Moses told Joshua to be strong and courageous, for he would go with the people into the land that God had sworn to their fathers and cause them to inherit it, and God would go before him, be with him, and not forsake him.

Ark of the Covenant (bas-relief at the Cathedral of Auch)

Reading the law


Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the Ark of the Covenant and to all the elders of Israel, commanding them to read it before all Israel at the end of every seven years during Sukkot, when all Israel was to appear in the place that God would choose. Moses told them to assemble all the people —men, women, children, and strangers — that they might hear, learn, fear God, and observe the law as long as the Israelites lived in the land that they were going over the Jordan to possess.

Moses Names Joshua To Succeed Him (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Bible in Pictures)

Writing the law


God told Moses that as the day of his death was approaching, he should call Joshua, and they should present themselves in the tent of meeting (the Tabernacle) so that God might bless Joshua. God appeared in a pillar of cloud over the door of the Tent and told Moses that he was about to die, the people would rise up and break the covenant, God’s anger would be kindled against them, God would forsake them and hide God’s face from them, and many evils would come upon them. God directed Moses therefore to write a song and teach it to the Israelites so that the song might serve as a witness for God against the Israelites. For when God will have brought the Israelites into the land flowing with milk and honey, they will have eaten their fill, grown fat, turned to other gods, and broken the covenant, then when many evils will have come upon them, this song would testify before them as a witness.

So Moses wrote the song that day and taught it to the Israelites. And God charged Joshua to be strong and courageous, for he would bring the Israelites into the land that God had sworn to them, and God would be with him. And when Moses had finished writing the law in a book, Moses commanded the Levites who bore the Ark of the Covenant to take the book and put it by the side of the Ark so that it might serves as a witness against the people. For Moses said that he knew that even that day, the people had been rebelling against God, so how much more would they after his death?

Moses called the elders and officers to assemble, so that he might call heaven and earth to witness against them. For Moses said that he knew that after his death, the Israelites would deal corruptly and turn away from the commandments, and evil would befall them because they would do that which was evil in the sight of God. And Moses spoke to all the assembly of Israel the words of the song.



Here are a few of the questions that the Rabbis raised about this Torah reading:

  • Did the command of Deuteronomy 31:12 for all the Israelites to assemble to hear the Torah read include women? If so, what does that imply about the status of women in Jewish religious services?[1]
  • Why did the commandment of Deuteronomy 31:12 to assemble for the reading of the Torah include small children?[2]
  • Does the Torah promise resurrection of the dead?[3]
  • If God anticipates Israel’s future in Deuteronomy 31:16–21, how much free will do we humans have? And why did God warn Israel to heed the law when God knew that Israel would not do so?[4]
  • What does Deuteronomy 31:17–18 mean when God hides God’s face? How do we interpret God’s hiding in a post-Holocaust world?[5]
  • What do the words “and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths” in Deuteronomy 31:19 teach about how to teach?[6]
  • Where did the Israelites keep the scroll of the law that Moses wrote?[7]


  1. Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 27a. Philip Sigal. “Responsum on the Status of Women: With Special Attention to the Questions of Shaliah Tzibbur, Edut and Gittin.”
  2. Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 3a.
  3. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 90b. Reprinted in, e.g., Talmud Bavli. Elucidated by Asher Dicker, Joseph Elias, and Dovid Katz; edited by Yisroel Simcha Schorr and Chaim Malinowitz, volume 49, pages 90b2–4. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1995. ISBN 1-57819-628-0.
  4. W. Gunther Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 1553.
  5. W. Gunther Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 1553–54. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God.
  6. Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 54b.
  7. Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 14a–b.