Hizku v’imtzu! …
Be strong and courageous! … (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Vayeilekh has the fewest verses of any Torah portion and takes up just one chapter: Chapter 31 of Deuteronomy. Except during Jewish leap years, Vayeilekh is paired with Nitzavim, and together they make up one of several “double portions” in the annual cycle of readings. Between the fact that Nitzavim overshadows Vayeilekh with some of the most famous rhetoric of the entire Torah — Moses’ exhortation to us to “Choose life!” — and the fact that Vayeilekh is always read just before or after Rosh Hashanah, Vayeilekh rarely gets much attention. But it merits a close reading.
Vayeilekh opens with Moses announcing to the Children of Israel that his death is imminent: “I am now 120 years old, and I am no longer able to be active. YHVH has told me ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:2). Moses reminds them that it is now Joshua who will lead them into the Promised Land.
I have learned that, in any given passage, the Torah makes its theme clear through the repetition of key words and phrases. In the brief text of Vayeilekh, one phrase is heard in refrain: Be strong and courageous. First, from Moses to the Children of Israel:
Be strong and courageous, be not in fear or dread of [your enemies, as you take possession of the Promised Land] (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Then from Moses to Joshua:
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that YHVH swore to their ancestors to give them … YHVH will be with you; YHVH will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not, and be not dismayed!” (Deuteronomy 31:7–8).
And then, as if in crescendo, YHVH charges Joshua directly:
Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the Children of Israel into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you (Deuteronomy 31:23).
In the literary structure of Deuteronomy, this theme at the end of Moses’ oration evokes the book’s very beginning. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ recounting of all the events that have befallen the Children of Israel over the past 40 years of wandering. He is speaking to a new generation, born in the wilderness, who have not known slavery nor seen the miracles of liberation from slavery or the revelation at Mount Sinai. Knowing that he himself will soon be gone, Moses must impart the sacred history and purpose that have guided the Children of Israel thus far, so that they might carry it on after Moses passes away. Curiously, Moses does not begin by telling the story of the Exodus or Mount Sinai. Instead, he recounts the story of the 12 scouts who reconnoitered the Promised Land 39 years earlier. Upon their return, despite reporting positively on the bounty of the land they had explored, 10 of the scouts were terrified by the strength and size of the land’s inhabitants, and upon hearing this, the Children of Israel’s hearts melted away, and they demanded to return to Egypt. Moses says, “I then said to you, have no fear or dread of them for YHVH will go before you and fight on your behalf, just as took place in Egypt!” (Deuteronomy 1:29–30).
As you may recall, because of the scouts’ failure of nerve and the Children of Israel’s loss of courage, YHVH determines that they are not ready to enter the Promised Land, and instead decrees that they will wander for 40 years, until the generation from Egypt have all passed away. Then, perhaps, a new generation will be ready to take possession of their goal. Only Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who tried to encourage the Children of Israel, will live to see that day.
As the Children of Israel stand on the far side of the Jordan, knowing that the only leader they have ever known will not be crossing over with them, this is the central message that Moses wants them to hear: You will never attain your goal without courage. Even at this most terrifying moment, when you must cross into the unknown on your own, you must not allow yourselves to be ruled by fear and dread, or your hearts will melt away. You will lose your resolve. This is what happened to your ancestors; they lost their resolve, and they lost their way. Moses opens his words with this message at the outset of Deuteronomy, and now he closes with it in Vayeilekh.
This is the Torah’s message to us whenever we stand on the cusp of the next challenging endeavor: Be strong and courageous. Do not live in fear or dread. Know that YHVH, Life Unfolding, is always with you, supporting you and sustaining you on your journey through life. Our journeys are not necessarily epic, and our challenges may be private and visible only to a few. Nevertheless, every day we face these challenges — whether it is fighting through pain in a physical-therapy session, or taking a principled position, or not giving up on our goals. But whether or not our challenges appear small or large to our own eyes, it’s always up to us to act with courage and to take that next step across the River Jordan. That’s the only way to get to the Promised Land.