Vayelech means, “and he went out/walked” referring of course to Moshe. The portion begins in a time of transition, where Joshua is brought forward as the next leader and final instructions to Israel are given. The portion ends with Moshe recording the words to a song, but those words are not given until the following portion, Ha’azinu.
Ha’azinu means “give your ears” or “listen.” It is the opening stanza of Moshe’s last song that he spoke of at the end of the previous portion. Although the language is poetic, the graphic imagery is meant for easy remembrance and its warnings are definitely LITERAL. There is no other poetry done as well in Tanakh except perhaps Job 38-42.
To these are combined separate Haftorah readings for it being the Shabbat of Return, the Shabbat after Yom Teruah but before Yom Kippur.
Ki Tavo means “when you enter” and begins with a variety of agricultural regulations that take effect once Israel has entered Canaan. Other regulations, such as that of tithing, are further instituted in the 26th chapter. 26 also contains a veiled rebuke from Moshe to the previous generation as he points out how good the land was, just as Abba YHWH commanded but this was not accepted as fact by Israel.
As 27 opens, the Israelites will then hurl blessings from Mount Gerizim and curses from Ebal, as we spoke at length about earlier. The curses are a re-statement of the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments. The blessings for obedience then follow suit in chapter 28 and a very extensive category of curses for disobedience follows for the rest of that chapter. Chapter 29 begins with Moshe on a hopeful note, restating how Abba YHWH has been with them all even while being chastised, to get ready for this great moment of entering the Promised Land.
Nitzavim means “you stand” and it begins with more warnings for the price of disobedience. This is literally the beginning of the end of Israelite wandering and Moshe’s own life, so it is critical that every opportunity be taken to explain Israel’s responsibilities to them. This is an abnormally short portion.
Ki Teze means “when you go out” as in terms of when Israel confronts her enemies on the battle field. One main war regulation is given at the start, and that is what to do with a woman taken captive from the nations that a Jewish man wants to make a wife. From there other requirements about marriage under other circumstances follow that have nothing to do with war. Many other marital and purity regulations follow for the remainder of this portion.
Shoftim means “judges” and Deuteronomy 16:18begins with the command to appoint them. The Torah had suggested that these courts had to be established to resolve general disputes (Exodus 21:22, 22:8) but only here do we find the specific command to set these courts up in every city, probably because prior to this time they were not close to being settled in the land. Other warnings to kill idolaters in their midst follow along the lines of Deuteronomy 13 but lacking the provision that they do so even if predicted signs and wonders come true from the idolater’s mouth. Still other restatements of how court should issue rulings, the roles of witnesses and the residing of the Levites with each tribe’s territory follow. Various other legal matters relating specifically to accidental death and serious injury are addressed in the remainder of the portion with a small break dedicated to rules of war.
Re’eh means “see,” and it begins with that great summary of the covenant: I set aside two ways for you, blessing and cursing, life and death. Shortly afterwards, a number of regulations about the place for Abba YHWH’s Name —Jerusalem though no one other than Abba YHWH knows that yet—are given. Some kosher regulations are restated or clarified and the law of the shemittah is given and explained. The portion wraps up with a restatement of the Hebrew festivals.
“Ekev” means “because” or “if only.” Following the theme of last week’s parsha of Va’etchanan, Moshe continues his urgent pleas to this current generation to realize that they are honor-bound to continue in the covenant originally granted to their fathers and that they, in a limited sense, share blame with their fathers for what went wrong. However, the positive side is also great in that they, unlike their fathers can inherit the Promised Land “if only” they obey and repent!
Va’etchanan means “and I pleaded” or “and I asked for favor/mercy.” This is Moshe pleading with Abba YHWH one last time to ask to be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. Abba YHWH though utterly refuses and says, “Speak to Me no more on this matter!” After an extensive prologue in chapter 4, the Ten Commandments are re-stated in chapter 5 and the foundational Shema prayer of course is the highlight of the Tanakh as well as chapter 6! The remainder of the portion is concerned with reinforcing obedience as the way to a better life.
Devarim means “the words” and as the book opens we enter the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe begins the book by recapping the details of the last 40 years. The portion ends with Moshe reminding Israel of the times that Abba YHWH fought for them. Now that the evil generation is gone, the time has come to strengthen their children by having them know that Abba YHWH is with them as they enter Canaan.
Masei means “the journeys,” and the entire 33rd chapter is devoted to the list of the 42 places the Israelites stopped at along the way to Canaan. The rest of the portion concerns detailed rules about what the land’s borders will be, which tribe gets what, and general rules on inheritance. There is a sequel at the end of the portion where the daughters of Tzelophehad are told they must marry within their tribe to inherit. If they marry outside, they do not get their inheritance.
Mattot means “the tribes,” but also has very interesting secondary meanings of “staff, scepter, rod, branch,” all of which seem relevant here. The portion opens with a discussion on the need to fulfill valid oaths to Abba YHWH to the letter-valid meaning that the oath is not contradictory to Abba YHWH’s laws or pronouncements. Various examples and applications of this principle follow. Then it is time to actually go to war against Midian. It is interesting that the previous portion had Israel get ready for this mentally, by totally changing their attitude and then Abba YHWH says, “Now is the time.” Midian is crushed and defeated completely.
Pinchas refers to the man whose righteous example of purging evil from Israel’s ranks moved Abba YHWH to stop a plague that would have otherwise destroyed all Israel. More than that, the portion starts with Pinchas getting a particularly high honor from Abba YHWH, the covenant of peace that rests on him alone and ensures his progeny the high priesthood. But with the population of Israel decimated by the plague, a new census had to be done in chapter 26. When that counting was concluded, Moshe is then given a very interesting issue to deliberate on: Should women be allowed to inherit their father’s estate under certain special circumstances? Abba YHWH’s answer back to Moshe and Israel then shows us the most progressive law regarding women’s rights in the entire ancient world. After this we get more purity regulations and a repetition of the Moedim, or appointed times of Abba YHWH along with their associated offerings given in chapters 28 and 29.
Balak refers to the man, Balak of Zippor, who was the king of Moab and a resolute enemy of Israel. When Balak then hears of a man named Balaam who can predict the future and cast curses, he hires him to curse Israel. However, Balaam can truly hear Abba YHWH’s Will and Abba YHWH tells him plainly that he can’t curse Israel. On three occasions the king of Moab wants a curse against Israel but only gets blessings for them instead. And then Balaam gives a fourth blessing on his way out—one for the proverbial road as it were.
Ironically also, Balaam disobeys Abba YHWH even as he correctly delivers the message, for Abba YHWH doesn’t want him to go to the king of Moab in the first place. When Balaam disobeys, he gets on his donkey to make the journey, but the donkey sees a vision of a Messenger from Abba YHWH and refuses to budge. Balaam beats the donkey three times and then the beast protests by complaining that she sees the Messenger barring her way. Eventually the Messenger allows Balaam to see the king of Moab who must then abandon his plans against Israel.