Brave Heart

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

PARASHAT VAYELEKH

 

 

Brave Heart

 

by Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin

 

 

"I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer go out and come in; Moreover, the Lord has said to me: You shall not go across yonder Jordan" (Deuteronomy 31:2).

 

            As Moses nears the end of his life, his final task is to oversee his own succession, the transfer of leadership to the next generation.  Joshua, Moses' assistant, has been selected as that successor by God - responding to a request by Moses not to leave the people without a shepherd.  The language Moses has just used to describe himself, in this week's parasha, echoes the prayer he presents to God in Numbers: "Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them, and who shall come in before them, and who shall lead them out and who shall bring them in..." (27:16-17).

 

            Joshua was a younger man, energetic, talented, and Moses was now old.  In the face of all the work to be done in entering the Land of Israel - conquering, dividing and settling it, it made sense to pass the mantle to another.  Moses certainly had accomplished much in the past 40 years to be proud of; there was no shame in retiring.  But, as Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak 11th century) explains, Moses by stating "I can no longer go out and come in" is not complaining about his poor physical condition.  We know this because the Torah reports that at his death, "His eyes were undimmed and his vigor was unabated" (Deuteronomy 34:7).

 

            Instead, Moses is reminding the nation that he is no longer permitted to lead the people in their travels.  God has decreed that the continuing journey will be led by Joshua.  The nation's second leader will be the one to take the Jews out to battle and bring them back to the lands they have been promised.

 

            This then seems to be Joshua's main task upon taking over as chief of the Jews - completing the mission begun four decades ago upon leaving Egypt, coming to the land and fighting the battles that will drive the inhabitants from Israel.  That's some job to inherit, and Moses believes that his assistant is probably a little nervous about his future.  The nations that Joshua will have to confront are city states who most likely have experience defending their lands, who have fortified towns, and perhaps, most unsettling, know Israel is coming.  There is no element of surprise here, rather forty years to map strategies, forge alliances, dig trenches and store weapons - all possible reasons to bet on the home side over the invading army.

 

            These unknown challenges that Moses is charging Joshua with might explain his need to encourage his successor, confirming promises made before that God is on his side.  "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."  Moses in 31:6 attempts to embolden Joshua, repeating this idea in the next verse: "Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: 'Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them."  CHAZAK VE-EMATZ is the Hebrew phrase that appears again and again with regard to Joshua's mission - Be brave!  Be strong!  Do not waver and do not fear!  It is this very choice of message that seems out of place, even unnecessary, when delivered to Joshua and it is his character that this essay will discuss.

 

Who is this man, Joshua, after all?  He is not some unknown who has applied to fill a vacancy - he figures in several major episodes earlier in the Torah (and a few minor ones) and his history has proven that he is indeed bold, courageous and fearless.  The first time we meet Joshua is in Exodus 17 soon after the flight from Egypt.  The nation of Israel has barely climbed out of the sea bed when they are attacked by a people called Amalek.  Moses, the leader, reacts to this confrontation by stepping aside: "Moses said to Joshua, 'Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek.  Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand'" (17:9).  And Joshua does it!  Here's a man who has never fought in a war, much less led people into battle.  He most likely has never even seen armed conflict or studied military strategy, and without blinking he goes out and whips Amalek.  True, the story does suggest that divine providence was on hand, but that doesn't detract from the bravery of this instant general who didn't stammer in hesitation, who didn't ask that Moses pray for his success.

 

            The second story to prominently feature Joshua is the tale of the spies.  As recorded in Numbers chapter 13, Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land of Canaan prior to the invasion.  Upon their return, ten of the spies give a rather negative report and while agreeing that the land is bountiful in fruit, claim that it is heavily defended by powerful peoples, too overwhelming for the inexperienced Israelites to best.  In contrast are the other two spies - Joshua son of Nun from the tribe of Efraim and Calev son of Yefuneh from Judah.  These two argue that the land is a good one and that its inhabitants can be taken with the help of God.  Do not be discouraged, they plead with the people, there is nothing to fear.  But the people panic and spend the night weeping and bemoaning their fate wondering which is the least of three evils - dying in the desert, being cut down by Canaanite swords, or returning to Egypt.  Because of this rebellion against the Land of Israel, God decrees that this generation of Jews shall not enter the land they have rejected, but that it shall be given to their children.

 

But what concerns us here is Joshua.  What he and Calev did took guts.  They not only went against the majority opinion of their team, but they stood up to the nation which had been convinced by the pessimistic report, and pleaded with them to come to their senses.  This is a sign of true leadership - Joshua had the self-confidence to stick to his beliefs, he refused to allow the weakness of the people to sway him.  Even Moses in this episode is speechless.  His first utterances are to God, begging him not to destroy the people.  But Joshua takes charge of the situation, fearing neither the peer pressure of his comrades nor the wrath of the nation.  And he certainly is not afraid of the Canaanites!  "Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey!" he tells Israel.  As with the Amalek episode, Joshua exhibits the qualities prescribed in Ethics of the Fathers (2:5): "Where there are no men, you try to be a man!"

 

So why tell Joshua to be brave?  The first time Joshua is told to stand tough is in Deuteronomy 3:28 when God commands Moses to encourage and strengthen Joshua.  He is told twice again in our parasha and several times again in the first chapter of the Book of Joshua.  Readers would think that Moses was appointing a spineless weakling, but we know it's not so.  Admittedly, the two stories mentioned above took place about 39 years prior to Joshua's promotion, and he may have lost some of his fortitude by now (according to tradition, Joshua was 56 years old at the Exodus and 96 now at the point of entry to Canaan), but age doesn't seem to be a factor.  Joshua was chosen because he had the political skills to continue the job - indeed it might be suggested that the Torah purposely emphasizes his participation in earlier episodes as background for Joshua's future greatness.  How then do we understand the statements of CHAZAK VE-EMATZ?

 

In his book, Biblical Images, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes of the contrast between the two characters of Moses and Joshua.  He argues that:

 

"Ultimately, Moses was not a man of action or the practical thinker.  In order to get to the people, he had to be helped by someone who had a closer relationship with them.  The enormous spiritual gap between Moses and the nation limited his ability to lead them...  But the person who could transform the vision and the prophetic message into practical reality, who could give body to the spirit, was Joshua" (see chapter 11: Joshua).

 

Rabbi Steinsaltz's theory is that while Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived, he was largely out of touch with the people and did not fully possess the skills required of a politician.  Joshua was a more down-to-earth sort who understood the needs of the people and who thought and behaved in a logical and pragmatic fashion.  The attributes of Moses and Joshua complemented each other; thus we see - at the war with Amalek, Joshua leading the physical attack against the enemy, and Moses directing the spiritual front - praying to God up on the mountain.

 

I don't think it's correct to paint these two leaders simply as archetypes of the Prophet and the General.  Moses certainly had moments where he exhibited able diplomacy: he repeatedly strides into the palace room to confront Pharaoh, and he doesn't flinch in the face of Korach's open rebellion.  Conversely, Joshua is credited by the Sages as being Moses' best student in the study of Torah as hinted at in Exodus 33:11, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaks unto his friend.  And he would return into the camp; but his assistant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tent."  He certainly understood the importance of religion in the formation and leadership of the nation of Israel.  However, I do think it's fair to say that Joshua was more sensitive to the material details of running a nation than Moses (who has to be reminded that the people need food and water), whereas the latter was more aware of the religious overtones in God's political decisions than Joshua was.  Two examples might make this point clearer.

 

In Exodus chapter 32 the Torah reports the story of the golden calf.  Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of the law and Joshua spends the 40 days waiting for him near the foot of the mountain.  After God tells Moses that the people have fashioned an idol which they are worshipping, Moses heads down the mountain to confront them.  He meets Joshua before getting to the camp: "And Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, and he said unto Moses 'There is a noise of war in the camp.'  And he [Moses] said 'It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, nor the sound of the cry of defeat; It is the sound of levity that I hear!'"  (Exodus 32:17-18).  Joshua's ear was tuned to the frequency of the physical causes for boisterousness, while Moses was attuned to the sound of worship - of God or otherwise.  Of course, Moses knew beforehand what was going on in the camp, but he was still able to discern the nature of the sounds, whereas Joshua was listening for something else altogether.

 

Later, in an effort to relieve some of the pressure from Moses' chores of governing, 70 elders are gathered to assist him, and some of Moses' spirit is transferred to these men causing them to prophesy.  Two of the elders are unable to stop, whereupon Joshua complains to Moses.

 

"A youth ran out and told Moses, saying: Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!  And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, 'My lord, Moses, restrain them!'  But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put his spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:27-29).

 

Once again, Joshua has misread the situation and it is because he doesn't immediately grasp the significance of the inspired behavior he is witnessing.  His immediate response is on a baser level - he is concerned for the honor of Moses' position and sees Eldad's and Medad's power as a challenge to the political leadership.

 

This tendency to understand the dynamics of his nation and to act appropriately is of course a critical ability for a leader, and one commentator at least sees this attribute as the very reason Joshua was selected to succeed Moses.  When Moses prays to God to choose his successor he calls God "the God of spirits."  Here is Rashi's interpretation of that phrase: "Why is this stated?  Moses said before Him, 'Sovereign of the Universe, there is revealed before thee the mind of each one, and they are not similar one to another.  Appoint over them a leader who will be able to bear every one according to his mind."  We have so far characterized Joshua as a talented general, statesman, in tune with the needs of his people.  Perhaps what Joshua lacked was the innate ability to perceive the divine elements in the earthly matters that he so naturally mastered.  The effort to fine tune this sensitivity in Joshua's approach to rule, may be the meaning behind the phrase which we began to analyze above - CHAZAK VE-EMATZ.  God and Moses feel that as Joshua takes over, maybe he needs to strengthen his faith.

 

Back in the story of the spies, Joshua himself tells the people "you must not rebel against the Lord - have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us.  Have no fear of them!" (Numbers 14:9).  Rabbeinu Bachye (14th century) explains the connection between rebellion and fear: "The Torah teaches that the nation's fear itself constitutes rebellion against God... fear of a mortal enemy which causes man to tremble is in itself an obstacle which leads man to forget God."  This exhortation that Joshua gives the people is now being given to him.  When Moses tells Joshua in Deuteronomy 31:7 to be strong, he's not giving him advice that bravery is necessary for the upcoming wars - Joshua has all the self-confidence he needs to march against the Canaanites.  What Moses is teaching Joshua is that he must have unwavering faith that God will be with him - don't believe only in yourself, believe that it is God who will defeat any resistance and that your success will lie in God's deliverance.  This is why the very next verse emphasizes that "the Lord himself will go before you.  He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you.  Fear not and be not dismayed."  If being strong and resolute really meant that the general must be courageous, take charge, let the enemy know that there is no escape from Joshua the Great, why this emphasis on God's role in the conquest?  On the other hand, because God is to be the force behind the upcoming campaign, the human figurehead need not really be the merciless marauder the world has seen in other military conquerors.  Of course, Joshua could never lead the people if he were a coward relying completely on the strength of the Lord to do all the work - he still has to command a human army and needs the respect that only a bold figure can demand.

 

Indeed, Joshua has the support of the people who tell him, "We will do everything you have commanded us and we will go wherever you send us" (Joshua 1:16).  What Joshua does need in order to be the perfect Jewish general is to understand and accept that his strategies will only work if he truly believes that God is with him every step of the way.

 

On two occasions when Joshua is encouraged for his upcoming leadership role the Torah uses an odd verb.  In Deuteronomy 3:28 God says: "Command Joshua - embolden him and imbue him with strength for he shall go over before this people and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you will see."  Similarly in our parasha, the Torah says that Moses "commanded Joshua the son of Nun and said be strong and resolute."  Why is Joshua commanded to be bold?  Why isn't enough to advise him - "Listen, as the next leader you should really exhibit the kind of strength and determination necessary for the job?"  It is my contention that Joshua is commanded to believe in God - it is basically forbidden for him to feel that he is on his own.  If he does doubt, that might lead him to forget God, which in turn will lead to God abandoning him and the nation to their own abilities.

 

We see the same approach to war in the speech delivered to the nation before a battle.  Deuteronomy 20:1-4 describes this necessary procedure for war preparation:

 

When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots - forces larger than yours - have no fear of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you.  Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops.  He shall say to them, "Hear O Israel!  You are about to join battle with your enemy.  Let not your courage falter.  Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them.  For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle for you against the enemy, to bring you victory."

 

The chief emotion is not belief in your own military skills, but belief that God is on your side.  Fear of death in battle might be impossible to totally dismiss, but fear in the enemy, as Rabbeinu Bachye puts it, represents a lack of faith that God will take care of you.  The message of CHAZAK VE-EMATZ is almost a challenge to Joshua to suppress his own valor while strengthening his belief in the role God will play.  The conquest of the land was one of holy war - the people and their leader had to recognize that it was part of the divine plan for the future of the nation of Israel.