Weekly Cycle

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Desert in Words: Being Strong and Courageous and Connected to the Head. (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

We're playing a bit of catch-up here, due to the high holidays and the entire month of Tishrei. Let's begin by addressing a theme that appears in Nitzavim as well as Vayelech.
The Torah portion of Nitzavim begins with the following verse:
You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, (Devarim 29:9):
In Hebrew, the exact wording is רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, [lit., “your leaders, your tribes,”], which leads Rashi to comment as follows: “The leaders of your tribes.” Some suggest that Rashi's comments are necessary given that the leaders themselves are obviously part of their respective tribe. While that may be true, perhaps there is also a deeper point Rashi is trying to make, which is that when it comes to the "head," it makes little sense to speak of more than one. There is only one head. That head is the tribe, as Rashi notes in a different place, "HaNassi Hu HaKol," the head of the tribe is everything.
We see this in Rashi's discussion of apparently repetitive verses found in Vayelech, which are also repeated in the Book of Joshua. In Vayelech, Moshe urges the Jewish people as follows:
Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed of them, for the Lord, your God He is the One Who goes with you. He will neither fail you, nor forsake you." (Devarim 31:6)
He then immediately urges Joshua in a similar manner:

7. And Moses called Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous! For you shall come with this people to the land which the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them. And you shall apportion it to them as an inheritance. (Devarim 31:6)
Towards the end of the Torah portion, he again urges Joshua:
And He commanded Joshua the son of Nun, and said: "Be strong and courageous! For you shall bring the children of Israel to the land that I have sworn to them, and I will be with you." (Devarim 31:23)
Rashi compares the two times that Moshe addresses Joshua, and draws a contrast between the two:
for you shall come with this people: Heb. כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה [as the Targum renders:]“For you shall come with this people,” [hence, the אֶת here means “with.” Accordingly, Moses’ statement of leadership role to Joshua can be understood as follows]: Moses said to Joshua, “The elders of the generation will be with you, [for] everything should be done according to their opinion and counsel.”
Rashi continues:
In contrast, however, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Joshua,“For you shall bring (תָּבִיא) the children of Israel to the land which I have sworn to them” (verse 23). [God’s statement of leadership role to Joshua here means:] “You shall bring them [even if it is] against their will! Everything depends [only] upon you; [if necessary,] you must take a rod and beat them over their heads! There can be [only] one leader for a generation, not two leaders for a generation.”- [Sanh. . 8a]
While Joshua is told to take advice from the elders as a whole and to follow their opinions and counsel, he must also understand that he is the one in charge and the one that is ultimately going to be held accountable.
[As an aside, it is interesting that Rashi goes as far as stating that if necessary, Joshua is to take a rod and beat [the Jewish people] over their heads, because Moshe himself was punished for apparently much less than that, taking a staff and hitting a rock, instead of speaking to it. It comes to teach us that Moshe was not necessarily wrong in principle by hitting the rock, it's just that this was not what G-d had commanded.]
In the Book of Joshua, the repetition of the verse "be strong and courageous" is said to represent two different aspects of life altogether:
Be strong and have courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land that I have sworn to their ancestors to give to them. (Joshua, 1:6)
RASHI - Be strong and have courage: in worldly pursuits, as the Scripture states: “For you will cause this nation to inherit the land.”
Just be strong and very courageous to observe and do in accordance with all of the Torah that Moses My servant has commanded you. Do not stray therefrom right or left, in order that you succeed wherever you go. (Joshua, 1:7)
RASHI - Just be strong and very courageous: in Torah, as the Scripture states: “To observe and to do in accordance with all of the Torah.”
We also see that Joshua strength and courage as the head of the Jewish people is ultimately for the purpose of being connected to his head, Moses.
There is a very important application of the above in our daily lives, especially as the Torah portion of Nitzavim (as usually Vayelech as well) always comes before Rosh Hashanah. There is something to be learned from all the sages, all the Tzadikim, and there is certainly a way to do everything according to their will. Yet, at the same time, there must be one ultimate head of the generation, just as we observe only one head of the year. We also cannot choose to have one leader and apply a set of standards for "religious" considerations and another for worldly matters. Ultimately, they both stem from the same place, and we must have a single leader (and set of principles) to guide us in both areas of life.
Again, that is not to say that we are not supposed to learn from all the sages (and from every individual, as stated in Pirkei Avot). Similarly, this is also not to say that there is not a hierarchy in leadership, just as each tribe had a leader, who in turn was ultimately subservient to their leader, the head of the entire generation. Ultimately even the head of generation is but simple and completely nullified and subservient slave in the hands of the One and Only. The King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

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