Imagine living under the tutelage of a master teacher, preparing for your profession. You are perhaps unsure that you are suited for the job, but with enough coaching, you gain the confidence needed to be the leader that those around you assure you that you are. You gain a following. You put aside the humility that you once had, and you assume leadership and convince thousands of people that you will lead them to a brighter future. You conduct your own campaign, going door to door to talk to the people about the future.

No, I’m not talking about any upcoming election. This is not a story about a politician. Instead, I’m talking about Moses, and this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech. The parashah begins with the word “Vayelech,” “And Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.” Usually the Torah would simply say, “And Moses spoke …” But here we are specifically told that Moses “went” or “walked.”

According to the Sages, Moses went to every tribal encampment to discuss a future without him. He could have spoken to them as a whole; but instead, he went to each one.

He felt he needed to assure them that community would not be leaderless – there would be no lack of stability, there should not be uncertainty, and there is nothing to be anxious about.

But in reality, even though Joshua took over, then Saul, then David, then Solomon … after him, there came king after king of Israel — kings whose names you do not even know. There is a good reason why you do not remember the names of the kings. Do you know what it is? Because, after Moses, leadership was born not by the leader and his relationship with God. It was with the people and their relationship with God.

The prophets, in their day, do not fault the kings, but the people. They are to know what to do. The responsibility to act according to what God desires no longer falls on the shoulders of a leader. It falls on your shoulders. So, what do you do?

The answer may be found in God’s name. There are different names of God associated with different attributes according to the rabbis. There are two names that are significant for us tonight.

  1. Elohim – judgement and justice. Some human judges in the Torah are called Elohim
  2. Adonai – mercy

What happens when they occur in the same verse?

Elohim ascends with teruah (a cry of warning), Adonai with the sound of the shofar” (Ps. 47:6).

On Rosh Hashanah, Elohim sits on the Throne of Judgement (“ascends with teruah”), but moves to the Throne of Mercy (“Adonai with the sound of the shofar”). Justice has to be informed by mercy. Through hearing the sound of the shofar, we are engaged in the process of witnessing God moving from one throne to another: from justice to mercy.
What does this mean for you? God tells us, “Just as I move from Judgment to Mercy, you have to do the same!”
During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you have to figure out how to do that.

Once upon a time, I came out of a store and got into my car. While I was inside, a red car had parked in front of me, so close to my car that I couldn’t get out of the spot. I could tell the car was running, but the driver had apparently run into the store. After a few minutes waiting, I got impatient. I noticed that there was a passenger in the car. And I thought to myself: “If that passenger would just hop into the driver’s seat and pull the car up a foot or two, I would be able to maneuver my way out.” The passenger, however, did not move into the driver’s seat. So, I started to beep at the passenger, hoping that she would take the hint, get out of the passenger seat, move into the driver’s seat and pull the car up. Nothing doing. The longer I waited, the angrier I became.

I decided to get out of my car, go to the passenger and ask her — maybe politely, maybe not — to move the car. I knocked on the car window, ready to be snarky and ask her to get into driver’s seat and move the car. She turned to smile at me, and it was then that I noticed that she was blind.

That put me in my place. Here I was, getting angrier by the second, making all sorts of judgments about her not moving to the driver’s seat, and she was blind. Had I known that, of course, I would never have beeped at her, gotten out of my car, or thought to yell at her. I might still have been annoyed, but I would have been patient.1

When we judge someone, it’s always true that

  • if we knew one more thing about that person or had one more piece of data, we might think very differently.
  • if we knew what happened to this person when he was in sixth grade…
  • if we knew what happened to that person when her family moved across the country and she had to start all over again in a new school…
  • if we knew that his parents had divorced when he was young and was raised by his grandparents…
  • if we had one more piece of information, we would make very different judgments or not judge at all.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” He also said, “malice toward none, with charity for all … to bind up the wounds” – of course he was talking about the nation – hard enough! Don’t you think it would be easier for you to do that with people you know?

  • Can you be the one to make the first move toward reconciliation?
  • Does it really matter who was right or wrong?
  • You have the power to give something to someone who does not deserve it. That is not justice. It is mercy.

People argue which is more important, God’s justice or mercy? Justice creates boundaries where none may exist. Mercy seeks to forgive, to calm, and to heal. Which one makes your world a better place for you to live?

A king’s son was at a distance of a hundred days’ journey from his father. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He replied, “I cannot.” His father sent to him and said, “Go as far as you are able, and I shall come the rest of the way to you.” Thus, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel, “Return to Me, and I will return with you” (Malachi 3:7). (P’sikta Rabbati, Piska 44, Shuvah Yisrael)

Tonight is Shabbat Shuvah, Sabbath of Repentance. The path of t’shuvah can be long and difficult, but Moses teaches through his extraordinary example that even a person at the end of his life can and should walk a different path; one where you walk right up to a person and talk face-to-face instead of preaching from the heights. And as Moses assures the people, “the Eternal your God will go with you; God will not fail you or forsake you.” If you are willing to embark on the journey, you will not travel alone.”

Shabbat shalom and G’mar chatimah tovah.


[1] September 24, 2018, a story told by Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., the Director of University-School Partnerships within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, the associate director of pastoral care for students in Campus Ministry, and a priest-in-residence in Dillon Hall. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy and his book of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God, was published last spring by Corby Books.