Parshat Yayelech: Change We Can Believe In

Barack Obama  by Kehinde Wiley 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


In Exodus we meet a man named Moses. At the time, Moses was neither courageous nor articulate. He simply wasn’t leader in any sense. Any passion or courage was subdued by fear, or even apathy. God calls to Moses: “The cry of the Israelites has reached Me...I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” And Moses responds with: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” [1] Similarly, this was also the fearful response of the Israelites when they first contemplated leaving Egypt. They too dreaded leaving what they had known, even though it was unsustainable – Egypt was too narrow, too confined and restricted for development of anything new. They had developed a habit of simply floundering and remaining stagnant.Their routine was suffering and surviving, but never thriving. They believed that this was the extent of their fortune, their lives.

Fast forward to our Torah portion this week, parshat Vayelech. By the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is 120 years old, and has been speaking for roughly 34 straight chapters. The Israelites are mighty, courageous, enveloped in their goal for attaining homeland. Yes they’re still complaining, but they’re also beginning to function as a community. After years in the barren desert, we now see the seedlings of self-worth and resolution. They’re on the brink of salvation. They only need to take the final step. That one final yard.

Moses says to his people:

“Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them; for the LORD your God Himself marches with you: He will not fail you or forsake you.” [2]

These are the words that come from a man who was scared to even speak to Pharaoh face-to-face! Now he boldly speaks them to an entire nation. So what happened? What ignited these changes? How did the Israelites get this far?

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he looks looks at the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies and organizations. He explains that habits emerge without our permission -- that most habits occur for so long we become blind to what causes them. Nevertheless, transforming a habit is possible, but it’s not always simple. In one his chapters, he looks at Alcoholics Anonymous, a successful program that encompasses words like God and spirituality to help addicts:

Essentially, It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it other people’s eyes. The evidence is clear...Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal, experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.
— Charles Duhigg, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business"

So let’s come back to Moses. Yes, alone, Moses wasn’t able to break the cyclical nature of misery and slavery that the Israelites had adopted, probably unconsciously. But then came Aaron – and then there were two. As the Israelites exited the threshold of Egypt, they saw belief in the eyes of those around them, they saw change ahead. As they began wandering through the desert, their old habits became incompatible with their new goal – Like outdated software functioning in a new device. The Israelites had created a focus, a belief that freedom was possible, which brought them together. This  gave them leverage to change and communicate more efficiently. They had created a routine of success. Of not simply surviving, awaiting their downfall. Rather, they visualized a land on which their new community could exist. They tasted the honey on their tongues, and the felt the strength of those that walked with them into a new land.

So as we continue on our journey of leadership and community, let us remember that we too can overcome ingrained habits of survival. Our community is much bigger than two. We carry with us lessons of our ancestors and belief of a world redeemed, a better world. Let us ask not like Moses did, "Who am I?” But rather ask: “Who are we?" As the years and days move, let us not simply get by, but install new routines that enable us to thrive together, to see success, see change in the eyes of those around us.

Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. it’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.
— Barack Obama

[1] Exodus 3:9-11
[2] Deuteronomy 31:6

Aaron Sataloff