Parashat Vayelech (Then He Went Out)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses declares that he is 120 years old and that G-d has told him that he will not pass over the Jordan River to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua is appointed their new leader, and Moses tells them that G-d will deliver the land to them, and that they must not be afraid of the people living there.

Moses implores the Israelites to keep their covenant with G-d, but he also knows that they will be unfaithful and forsake their commandments to follow foreign gods instead. Moses finishes preparing the Torah as a book to be kept safe by the Levites. And while the latter half of the passage reflects Moses’ bitterness at the impending rejection of G-d’s law by the Israelites, there are two notes of hope we ought to hear.

The first is G-d’s promise that the special relationship held with the Israelites will not be forgotten by their descendents (emphasis added):

“‘When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.'”

Deuteronomy 31:20-22 (NIV)

Our second note of hope comes in the repeated instruction to “be strong and courageous,” which appears three separate times in the reading. The first time (v.6), Moses speaks it to all of Israel. Then he went out and spoke it a second time (v.7) to Joshua specifically but in the presence of all of Israel. The third and final time (v.23), G-d speaks it directly to Joshua. We need to get that message, right? That’s why it’s repeated so many times. G-d is with us, will never leave us, and will never forsake us. We–specifically, us here in the present day–are the descendants who will not forget G-d’s covenant with our ancestors. So be strong and courageous, because there is nothing we ought to fear or allow us to feel discouraged.

Photo by Rik Buiting on Unsplash

Then He Went Out

The other side of that truth that we ought not be afraid though is the reality of our fear and discouraged spirit. Generally speaking, our spiritual leaders and, well, G-d, don’t need to repeat something multiple times if we’re already doing it. Like our repeated failures to live up to the commandments prescribed by G-d, there are times where we are not strong and courageous, where we are afraid both of others and of G-d forsaking us. Perhaps it is really our guilt at being unfaithful to G-d that we are feeling here? When we are living in that covenant, we have nothing to fear. When we know that we’re not upholding our end of it, we know that G-d is free to shrug just the same.

Another way to look at this is to consider what it’s like to make a big change in our lives. That’s what the Israelites were doing, right? They were finally, after wandering the wilderness for forty years, crossing over into the Promised Land. More than that journey alone, they were losing their leader, Moses, and Joshua was being charged to take his place. If you’ve ever worked in a company going through a change in leadership, think about how that played out for a moment. People likely had their doubts, their criticisms, their resistance to changing the way they’d grown accustomed to doing things.

The Israelites were no different, and both G-d and Moses seem thoroughly convinced that they’ll be unable to commit to new patterns of behavior to match their new homeland. This passage starts with “then he went out,” but the message seems hardly convinced the Israelites are ready or will last long once they too go out. Not exactly a vote of confidence in Joshua’s new leadership.

In part we are the Israelites here. We’re being led, directed, and brought into a covenant. We’re also a bit of Moses too. The life we’re living right now is one we’ve led ourselves to. It’s under our leadership, for better and worse, that we’ve developed the kind of deep grooves we’re now challenging ourselves to jump for something new.

Lastly, we’re also Joshua in this story (and not just those of us who share his name). Life on the other side of a terrified and discouraged spirit takes new leadership, new habits, perseverance, and the kind of fortitude built by the strengths we’ve gained previously. It’s Moses who goes out in the beginning of this passage. But it’s Joshua who must pick up the story next.

Like all of us on the precipice of something great and new, I am certain he felt his moments of fear and doubt. How many times did he remind himself, “be strong and courageous”?

No matter. Because then he went out….

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