Going Nowhere, With Love: Commentary on Parashat Vayyelekh 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

One of my favorite contemporary Hebrew expressions to hear on the phone is “אֲנִי כְּבָר בָּא” (ani k’var ba), which means literally “I am already coming.” I have heard it used by Israelis who are in a car and actually en route to their next meetup, but it is also said by someone in their pajamas and far from out-the-door. In short, you can say ani k’var ba anywhere and anytime, as long as you have the intention to get somewhere eventually. On the other hand, if somebody says to you, “Ani k’var ba,” you should take pause; you may have to wait a long time before they ever show up.

Vayyelekh (וַיֵּֽלֵךְ), this week’s Torah portion, begins with what we can call an ani k’var ba moment. The very first sentence of the parashah leaves us clueless about the temporal and geographic setting of absolutely everything: “וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֑ה” (vayyelekh mosheh, “Moses went”). This two-word sentence in Deuteronomy 31:1 leaves us wondering where Moses came from, where he was going, and when the whole thing took place. The 15th century Italian Rabbi Ovadyah of Bertinoro wrote in his commentary on this verse that Moses’ act of going is misplaced here. In Ovadyah’s mind, the rest of this portion—which is otherwise a continuation of Moses’ monologue that comprises most of Deuteronomy—is light on plot. To compensate, Ovadyah figures, whoever put our Torah together decided to open our text with Moses doing somethinganything.

But, for the reader who will latch onto the words of Torah when they know that there is serious narrative here, Ovadyah’s answer does not suffice. What kind of noteworthy action did Moses do when he went to some unidentified location?

Even the 12th century Spanish Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, who sought close and literal readings of the Torah, was troubled by the image of Moses going from nowhere to nowhere. In an instance that challenged his commitment to understanding the Torah solely based on what was written in front of him, he painted a picture using his own imagination:

.הלך אל כל שבט ושבט להודיע שהוא מת, שלא יפחדו וחזק לבם… ולפי דעתי כי אז ברך השבטים

[Moses] went to each and every tribe to inform them that he was dying so that he would not scare them, and he strengthened their hearts… And, according to my understanding, this is when he blessed the tribes.

Anticipating the blessings Moses offers the Israelite tribes in Deuteronomy 33, ibn Ezra imagines that Moses went, not to nobody, but to everybody in his nation. The Portuguese and Italian Rabbi Yitzchak Abravan’el, active in the late 15th and early 16th century, echoed much of what ibn Ezra had said before him, but added a heartfelt twist:

.והלך בפרט אצל כל שבט ושבט להודיעם שהוא מת ולהפטר מהם לאהבתו אותם

He went specifically to each and every tribe to inform them that he was dying—and to depart from them with his own love for them.

Abravan’el—who, in his own lifetime, experienced expulsion, displacement, and homelessness—understood the heartbreak of unfinished business. How many people did he leave behind in a hurry before he could say final parting words? How often did Abravan’el neglect to communicate to a neighbor, a teacher, a colleague, or a relative some private thoughts that could have mended or strengthened their relationship? Over 500 years later, how true is it that—even if we do not live as refugees—we face life circumstances that prevent us from articulating our feelings before it is too late? We all too often lose those whom we love without a chance for us to share with them just how much we love them, or even that we love them at all.

It is possible that what ibn Ezra and Abravan’el read in this text actually had been sensed some time prior. In 11th –12th century France, Rashi understood that where Moses went in our verse was summative. Moses was going the way of the world, and he had traveled his full life journey. Rashi (commenting on Deuteronomy 31:1–2) imagines Moses announcing to the Israelites:

.הַיּוֹם מָלאוּ יָמַי וּשְׁנוֹתַי. בְּיוֹם זֶה נוֹלַדְתִּי וּבְיוֹם זֶה אָמוּת

Today, my days and years have been fulfilled. On this day I was born, and on this day I will die.

Rashi imagines Moses reaching this tragic 121st birthday and realizing that his time is up. Moses went—because Moses had gone everywhere he could, and now Moses would have to go for good.

In Vayyelekh’s initial verse, Moses goes—but whether he goes somewhere or nowhere is unclear. In Rashi’s reading, Moses goes nowhere because he has reached his end. Abravan’el’s image of Moses though reveals the leader going everywhere, at least everything that is meaningful, namely, all the people who still mean something to Moses.

In the ambiguity of Moses’ ‘going’—this climactic going that will close Moses’ adventures—we who inherit the Torah realize that we, in life, are constantly going: going somewhere, or going nowhere. Regardless of how we are going about the world or where we are going in the world, we understand that time marches on, and life is all too precious to have to conceal the love we hold in this universe. A weary Abravan’el begs us: We cannot wait until the last minute to tell those we endear of our admiration for the goodness of God’s creations. Not all of us can delay until we are 120 years old before we say how we really feel. Tragic partings can interrupt us before we even attempt the conversation.

Let us relish the moments we inhabit. Conveying the fondness we have for a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a relative, or even a partner might not always come naturally. But we can get started with the mindset of ani k’var ba.