On the last day of his life, Moses tells the people that it is now time for Joshua to succeed him. They should not be afraid, because God will continue to be with them as they conquer the Canaanites as they previously conquered the Amorites. Moses then charges Joshua in the sight of all Israel.
Moses writes down the Torah (or, perhaps, parts of Sefer D’varim) and gives it to the priests and the elders. He then tells them that every seventh year, at Sukkot, they are to assemble the people and read the Torah to them.
God now calls Moses and tells him it is almost time for him to die. He instructs him to bring Joshua to the tent of meeting to hear God’s instructions. God then tells Moses that in the future the people will break the covenant and turn to alien gods, so that God will become angry and “hide His countenance” from them. Therefore, Moses is to write down a poem (found in Ha’azinu) and teach it to the people. It will remind them of God’s promise and their disloyalty and prompt them to repent.
Vayelech is always part of the High Holy Day season, read either together with Nitzavim on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana or, as is the case this year, by itself on Shabbat Shuva between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And, of course, such things are not coincidental — both parshiot are full of things that evoke the themes of the Yamim Nora’im.
Rabbi Eliezer Urbach (19th century, Poland), in his book Divrei Eliezer, notes that when God tells Moses to write down the poem Ha’azinu, He explains that it is to be read when “the many evils and troubles befall them…. For I know what plans they are devising even now (asher hu oseh). Rabbi Urbach notes the phrase “asher hu oseh” (literally, “which they are doing”), then quotes the gemara in Kiddushin (40a), “The Holy Blessed One does not equate an evil thought to a deed” and says, therefore, that the Torah says “asher hu oseh,” for they are not punished because of thoughts.
That’s the good news — an evil thought or desire is not a sin. When you are introduced to an attractive new coworker and an image of a romantic encounter pops into your head, you haven’t done anything wrong (although it’s not a good idea to dwell on the fantasy since it might spur you to action). In fact, the gemara in Bava Batra teaches that nobody makes it through a single day without inappropriate sexual thoughts.
God weighs our deeds rather than our intentions or impulses. If you find a wallet stuffed with cash and take a few minutes to contemplate keeping it or perhaps returning the wallet and keeping the money — because who hasn’t imagined what one would do with an unexpected windfall — what counts is what you do. You will be judged to be righteous if you return the wallet with all its contents, no matter what fantasies you might have entertained.
Of course, there is also bad news. Just as there is no punishment for evil thoughts, there is no reward for good intentions that are not turned into action. Meaning well cannot replace doing the right thing. “I really meant to make that call, write that check, keep my promise, etc., etc., etc.” is simply not worth very much.
And so we come to the Yamim Nora’im. Every year each of us engages in the process of heshbon hanefesh, introspection and evaluation, and, with the best intentions, each of us resolves to be a better person, to change our lives. But what actually matters is asher hu oseh — what you do. One small action — a phone call to a distant relative, one evening spent at home talking with the family rather than staring into a screen, lighting candles on one Friday evening, attending one service, running one errand for a sick neighbor — outweighs 100 unfulfilled resolutions and good intentions.
Shana tova — may it be a good year.