Vayielekh: Two Messages

An old era ends, a new era begins.  The old leader steps back, the new leader steps forward.  It happens on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah, “Head of the Year”), which started Monday evening.1  And it happens in the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, Vayeilekh (“And he went”).

The portion begins with Moses announcing that he is 120 years old and cannot lead the people in the conquest of Canaan.  He mentions that God had told him he would not cross the Jordan River; he knows he will die without setting foot on the “promised land”.

Moses urges first the Israelite, then their next leader, not to be afraid of the Canaanites:

Chizku and imtzu!  You must not be overawed nor in dread of their faces, because God himself, your God, is the one going with you.  [God] will not let go of you nor abandon you.”  Then Moses called Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel: “Chazak and eimatz!  Because you yourself will bring this people to the land the God vowed to give your forefathers, and you yourself will apportion inheritances [of land] to them.”  (Deuteronomy 31:6-7)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural imperative of chazak, חָזַק)  Be strong!  Be courageous!  Be resolute!  chazak (חֲזַק) = (singular imperative of חָזַק).

imtzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural imperative of amatz, אָמַץ)  Be strong!  Be courageous!  Be resolute!  eimatz (אֶמָצ) = (singular imperative of amatz).2

Moses gives Joshua and the Israelites the same message.  But when God speaks to each one in the Tent of Meeting, God gives them different messages.

And God said to Moses: “Hey, you will be lying with your forefathers, and these people will rise up and go whoring after the foreign gods of the land that they are coming into.  And they will abandon me and break my covenant that I cut with them. And my nose will heat up against them on that day, and I will abandon them!  And I will hide my face from them, and they will become fodder, and they will encounter many evils and constrictions …” (Deuteronomy 3:16-17)

Then God tells Moses to teach the people the song in next week’s Torah portion, Ha-Azinu, so that someday they will realize how they screwed up.

And [God] commanded Joshua, son of Nun, and said: “Chazak and eimatz!  Because you yourself will bring the children of Israel into the land that I have vowed to them, and I myself will be with you.”  (Deuteronomy 31:23)

That is all God says to Joshua—a repetition of Moses’ earlier encouragement.  Although both men stand inside the Tent of Meeting, each one seems to hear only the divine message addressed to him.

Why does God give Moses a discouraging prediction?

Moses dedicated the last 40 years of his life to shepherding the recalcitrant Israelites to Canaan.  How can he die in peace now that he knows they will abandon God again in their new land?

I have discovered that when I am giving up a project that was important in my life, I am finally able to accept any unpleasant truth about it.  As long as I did my best, most of the time, that is enough. But I am curious about what will happen next.  If I found out that the project I started would fail, but could someday be revived, I think I would be content.

Why does God encourage Joshua?

The new leader of the Israelites has more energy than Moses.  If Joshua knew that is charges were going to abandon God and go after idols again, wouldn’t he do something to mitigate the situation?

I have noticed that then I am about to begin a new enterprise, I feel nervous and I crave encouragement.  I do not need someone to tell me the project will fail; I can easily imagine that myself.  If an authority figure confirmed my fears, I might give up prematurely.

For everything there is a season: a time to release and accept, and a time to be brave and resolute.  In the Torah portion Vayeilekh, God knows which time it is for Moses, and which time it is for Joshua.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in 2012.)

  1. Jews outside Israel observe Rosh Hashanah for two full days. Synagogues provide ten or more hours of services in addition to the outdoor ritual of Tashlich, in which we symbolically cast away our regrettable behaviors from the past year by tossing pebbles in the water.  The extra liturgy for Rosh Hashanah introduces the themes of repentance that come to full bloom on Yom Kippur.  In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we still read a Torah portion from Deuteronomy as we approach the end of the annual cycle of readings.
  2. Chazak and eimatz are close synonyms. Biblical Hebrew often uses a pair of synonyms either to indicate emphasis or as a poetic device.


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