The words in this week’s Torah portion can leave one teary-eyed. It truly is the end of Moses’ days. The leader who has shaped our people’s narrative for 4 of the past 5 books, who was called the greatest prophet ever in our people’s history, is about to pass on. How will the people be able to function without him? Will the next leader, Joshua, be able to do as effective a job at corralling the stiff-necked nation?
At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses was commanded by G-d to strengthen Joshua. In next week’s portion, Moses finally does so. He tells Joshua חזק ואמץ, to be strong and emboldened, for you shall enter with this people into the land that G-d swore to their forefathers to give them.” Moses is the appropriate person to give this charge. He knows what Joshua is up against and yet he also knows that if Joshua remains strong, he will be able to effectively lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
If Moses had given this message to Joshua privately, it might be interpreted one way. However, the text states that he gave it to Joshua as all of Israel watched. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th century Russian commentator who went by Netziv for short, picks up on two reasons why it was said before all of Israel. One is so that all of Israel will see that Moses is behind Joshua being the leader of Israel. The other is that Moses is indicating that Joshua will be strengthened in the eyes of Israel through his future actions. It is one thing to tell someone to be a strong leader and quite another for them to actually be strong as they lead their people.
These words חזק ואמץ are very similar to the words that we read when we conclude a section of Torah. We read חזק חזק ונתחזק, “Strong Strong, We will be strengthened!” I believe this is because we might feel lacking or in want of more when we finish a section of the Torah, yet we are called upon to carry on as we continue to the next book. Though we might want to stay on Genesis forever and hate arriving to Leviticus, our tradition teaches us to be emboldened and embrace Torah in whichever portion we find ourselves.
While Moses is the appropriate person to speak to Joshua, part of me wonders to the extent he can relate. After all, his contemporaries have died in the desert and a new generation, Joshua’s contemporaries, has risen up. As we know from the Pew Report, each generation responds differently to Judaism in terms of what it values. It would be remiss for us to assume that Joshua was the same type of leader as Moses or that his generation would respond the same as Moses’ did. Yet perhaps this is precisely the point: Moses is telling Joshua to be strong and emboldened to whatever challenges he will face. If Joshua effectively communicates his vision and practices what he preaches, then he will be strengthened in the eyes of the Israelites. When looking at the Book of Joshua, we find out that Joshua was successful in defeating the enemy nations and apportioning the land, and his boldness, his belief in G-d and in his mission and his cleverness enabled him to move forward where other leaders could not.
How does this relate to us? During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, it is often easy for regulars to lament the fact that so many people come only for these 2-3 days per year. Where are they at Shabbat services or at daily minyan? It is also easy to look back at previous years and remember filled seats and people no longer present. What I am asking each of us to do this High Holiday season is to be, like Joshua, strong and emboldened in the mission and vision of our congregation. We are a congregation that embraces tradition while concurrently striving to meet the needs and values of the younger generations. We accept everyone for who they are and what they contribute to our congregation, whether that be money, time, program planning or attendance at programs. Our charge in moving forward as a congregation is to be חזק ואמץ, to be strong and emboldened in our belief that we are serving an important purpose and that we have much to offer to Long Island Jews. Let us proudly move forward to the High Holidays, ready to connect with G-d and to welcome in all those who enter the doors of our holy congregation.