The Public Face of Courage – VaYelekh 5780

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Because the Torah lacks both vowels and punctuation the text is often ambiguous. It may be read in more than one way. Such is the case with Deuteronomy 31:7. Just before Moses dies he transfers the mantle of power to his apprentice, Joshua. The usual reading is that the commission was public since the Torah says, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation: “Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute…’” The ceremony, beginning with encouragement, took place “in the sight of all Israel.”


But there is an alternative way of reading that is both loyal to the text and fitting for the situation. Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen in his 1968 book “Al Ha-Torah” suggests that the text could be read: “Then Moses called Joshua and said to him: ‘In the sight of all Israel be strong and resolute…’” Rather than reading the text as an indication of a public ceremony, the text should be read as good advice from a retiring leader of how to behave in public.


In order for this reading to work, two assumptions are necessary. First, it is necessary to assume that Joshua was by nature diffident, modest, unassuming, and unsure of himself and his authority. (If the people could contend with the great man Moses, then Joshua would stand little chance to muster the people’s loyalty and obedience.) Second, it is necessary to assume that a person can adopt a public persona different from his innate character. Both assumptions are entirely reasonable. Accordingly, Moses advises his successor to keep his personal hesitations private. To do otherwise would be to expose the people to worry and only exacerbate their fears. Besides, the pretense of courage may actually lead to becoming courageous.


As this new year unfolds and we contemplate the challenges – real and imagined – that we will need to face, it is this second reading of the text that can serve us well.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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