The Ethical Will of Moses
October 4, 2019
By Steven Schwartz

This week’s Torah portion VaYelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30), describes the passing of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  Moses explains that at 120 years old, he can no longer be active.  Adonai transfers authority from Moses to Joshua who will now lead the Israelites to the Promised Land.  Moses will not enter the Promised Land as his authority has been removed.

Moses chooses to deal with this “retirement” not as a loss but an opportunity.

He speaks to the entire nation and, after saying he will not join them, foretells their successes in conquering the land across the Jordan. He encourages them with these words:  “Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed of them for Adonai is the One who goes with you.  Adonai will neither fail you, nor forsake you.”  He also offers similar inspiration to Joshua.

Moses writes the Torah -his legacy- and gives it to the Levites who place it in the Ark of the Covenant. Moses then commands the Israelites to read the Torah every seven years on Sukkot.

This Torah is Moses’s ethical will (tzava’ah), a traditional Jewish testament meant to pass ethical values from one generation to the next.  While relieved of his direct authority over the Nation of Israel, Moses still maintains authoritative leadership through the power of his words and wisdom.  The Torah represents this wisdom to be passed on to future generations.

We have the same opportunity as Moses. Even when our direct responsibility and power may diminish as we age, we can still impart our wisdom and values to the next generation.  We can tell our story—our loves and losses and lessons learned.  What are the values that we wish to leave for our children and their children? What instructions can we offer to inform the conduct of their lives?  What blessings can we offer?  How do we wish to be remembered? Beyond material things, what are the valuable gifts we can leave them?

Our written legacy need not wait until death is imminent, nor even wait for old age.  And it need not take up five volumes, as Moses did.  Now is the time to start the writing of our ethical will, our tzava’ah, so that we may leave a living gift of love and lessons and blessings.  Offering these gifts to the next generation while we are still living can bring us great joy.

Steven Schwartz is a leader of Buffalo’s Jewish Service Corp and a longtime member of Congregation Havurah.

The Ethical Will of Moses - Jewish thought of the week graphic