Image: Eight hands join over a map. (Photo: geralt/Pixabay)
Chapter 31 of Deuteronomy is also known as Parashat Vayeilech. Moses is about to die, and he’s worried about the Israelites. He’s had 40 years of their insubordination and complaining, and while he wants to give them good advice, he’s also not at all certain that they will follow it.
The advice begins with prophecy: “You’re going to cross into the Land after I die. You’ll follow Joshua, my successor, and God will be with you. You’re going to face opposition from the residents of the land, but with God’s help you will prevail, as long as you follow instructions.”
Then the instructions: first, to the Israelites, he says:
חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ (Hizku v’imtzu!)
Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31:6
And then immediately turns to Joshua, and says to him:
חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒ (Hazak v’amatz!)
Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31: 7
This seems redundant: why say it twice? Why first to the people, and then to their leader in exactly the same words, only changed from plural to singular masculine?
I believe he does this because he knows that in future, the people and their leaders will go forward in a covenantal relationship. Joshua, and the leaders who follow after him, will have to be strong and resolute to do their jobs properly. Sometimes they will lead wisely, and sometimes they will not. But they will not be alone, because they lead in sacred relationship with the people of Israel. Moses gives the people the same charge, “Be strong and resolute” and he gives it to them first. Going forward, they will not be led like little children; they will be led by leaders who are fallible, and who may need to be reminded from time to time of their obligations under Torah.
And indeed, in the next verses, Moses entrusts the Torah to the priests, and gives them specific instructions for regular readings of the Torah to the whole people of Israel:
Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. – Deuteronomy 31:12
The Torah is not a book for specialists, or only for the leaders. It isn’t only for the men. It isn’t only for born Jews, or for rich Jews, or for insiders. It is the inheritance of ALL Jews, “men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities.” Regular reading will insure that the People know the Torah, and can hold the leaders accountable to it.
And indeed, as the years passed, we know that sometimes the leaders were wise and their work was informed by Torah. We also know that there were times when ordinary Israelites had to call them to account. Some of those Israelites were prophets, like Nathan and Jeremiah. Some of those Israelites were women, like Michal and in the rabbinic period, Beruriah. Some converts to Judaism became leaders of the People, like Avtalyon and Shemaya (Yoma 71b) and some called the leaders to account, as well.
The long path of Jewish history is a partnership between leaders and ordinary Jews. I see it particularly in the history of the Reform Movement, when early leaders such as Samuel Holdheim would have an idea (“Would it be a good idea to move Shabbat to Sunday?” and the Jew in the Pew would say, “Absolutely not!” There was nothing in the tradition to support a move to Sunday, and while having a different Sabbath than Christians was inconvenient, it was not impossible. Today, all Reform congregations celebrate Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, just as do other Jewish congregations.
Jews and their leaders need to talk to one another, and we need to listen to each other, too. We have to make our arguments “for the sake of heaven,” (Avot 5:17) that is, for the greater good, not for our own aggrandizement. Questions, even questioning authority, are good as long as they seek the truth.
These discussions are not easy. It is not easy for leaders to listen, because it’s simpler if they don’t have to listen. It can be hard for an ordinary person to speak up, fearing they’ll sound stupid or that they’ll be ignored.
That’s why the text says “Be strong and resolute” twice. We need to be strong and resolute partners to solve problems and to move forward. We need to be strong enough to listen, resolute enough to speak up, and to act. That’s the only way we will solve the problems in this world, whether they are large global issues or small local problems: in partnerships.
Let us pray for partners in peace, partners in discussion, partners in the struggle for truth in this world! Let us pray that when we meet a potential partner, we have the wisdom and grace to recognize them as such.