Acknowledge and Overcome
As Moshe passes the staff of leadership to Yehoshua and prepares to take leave of the people, he knows that this transition is destabilizing and frightening. Moshe’s parting words reflect this as he tells the people to stay strong:
חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ אַל תִּירְאוּ וְאַל תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם כִּי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ:
Be strong and mighty, do not be afraid and do not cower before them, because HaShem your God is the One who is walking with you, He will not let you loose and will not abandon you.
Moshe reassures Benei Yisrael that God is with them and will not abandon them, therefore they can be strong and unafraid. And when Moshe appoints Yehoshua to take over as leader, Yehoshua receives the same message that he too should be strong and unafraid:
וַיְצַו אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן וַיֹּאמֶר חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תָּבִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָהֶם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ:
He urged Yehoshua bin Nun and He said: Be strong and mighty! For you will bring Benei Yisrael into the land that I have sworn to them and I will be with you.
Although these messages seem similar, they differ in two important ways. First, the affirmation that Benei Yisrael receive comes to them through Moshe, whereas Yehoshua is encouraged by God Himself. Second, and perhaps even more significantly, Yehoshua is guaranteed success. Not only will God be with him, God promises that his mission will be completed. However, Benei Yisrael are told that God will be with them come what may, but are not told what will come and certainly do not receive a promise that what will come will be positive. The choice made to be affirming, but also honest, when speaking to Benei Yisrael teaches us about what we need to confront adversity and how to survive it.
The fact that Moshe does not guarantee Benei Yisrael success is not an accidental omission. Moshe will not lie to the people and he knows that after Yehoshua’s tenure of leadership, the people will fall on sinful and difficult times. He knows this because God tells him so explicitly:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם אֲבֹתֶיךָ וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הוּא בָא שָׁמָּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וַעֲזָבַנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ: וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה:
God said to Moshe: You are now going to lie down alongside your ancestors1 and these people are going to get up and whore after foreign gods of the land that [the people] are coming into, and they2 will abandon Me and renege on the covenant I have made with them. And I will be furious on that day and I will abandon them and hide My face from them and they will be vulnerable to being consumed and much misfortune and sorrow will find them. And they will say on that day, “Is it not because our God is not in our midst that all of this misfortune has come upon us?!”
According to God, the people definitely will behave in a non-covenantal way and therefore “don’t worry, you will be fine” is not the right message for them. However, “do not be afraid because God is with you” is exactly the message they need. They will have reason to be afraid and reason to believe that God has left them. They will feel that the temporary state of I will abandon them and hide My face from them is permanent and irrevocable. Because they will fail, they need to be given the tools to get back up once they have fallen. The message that Benei Yisrael need to hear is that failure is not final. God hasn’t abandoned them, and when they feel that He has is when they most need to hear that He is there.
And though it is not always true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, in Benei Yisrael’s case, it is so. The reason why it is hard for the people to cope with their failure is that they hold on to a mistaken assumption that when they sin against God and experience misfortune, it means that God has abandoned them completely. This fear is not only emotionally crippling, but gives license to the people to continue to move in a negative direction. If God has abandoned them and He is no longer invested, then there is no reason for Benei Yisrael to behave in a covenantal manner and to try to mend the fractured relationship. When God tells Yehoshua not to be afraid, it is because he in fact has nothing to be afraid of. But when the people are told by Moshe not to be afraid it is because they do have reason to be frightened and they need to learn how to overcome that fear. Moshe acknowledges the reality of what Benei Yisrael will encounter and provides the emotional and psychological tools that Benei Yisrael will need to recover and move on.
The tool that Moshe gives the people is simple, but powerful: access to a comforting narrative that is both affirming and accurate. Moshe gives them language that resonates with possibility and corrects the harmful narrative that Benei Yisrael have of their own failure. Moshe tells the people that they need to prepare for a difficult future. They should write a poem for themselves, something to remind them that though things are bad now, they were once better and could again improve:
וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי: וְהָיָה כִּי תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת יִצְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה הַיּוֹם בְּטֶרֶם אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבָּעְתִּי: וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
And now, write this poem for yourselves and teach it to Benei Yisrael; place it in their mouths so that this poem will be a witness among Benei Yisrael. For I will bring them3 to the land that I have sworn to their ancestors, flowing with milk and honey, and they will eat and be satisfied and get fat, and they will turn to other gods and serve them, and they will scorn Me and renege on My covenant. And it will be that when great misfortune and difficulties find them that this poem will respond to them as a witness if it is not forgotten by their progeny. For I know their nature, what they are doing today, before I bring them into the land that I have promised. Moshe wrote this poem on that day and taught it to Benei Yisrael.
Although Moshe writes it initially, one of the elements that is so forceful and so important in these verses is that the people are supposed to write the poem for themselves, place it in their own mouths, and be the ones to teach it to their children. The people need to hear affirmation in their own voices, not just from the distant and external voice of Moshe or another leader. They may not have the resources with which to compose the poem, but they need to use it, write it down, teach it to themselves, and learn it from themselves. The poem is not a promise that everything is going to be perfect; it is a testimony to the strength of the people and their resilience, and to the reliable presence of God. The poem is designed to help Benei Yisrael weather adversity by tapping into positivity and comfort through a narrative which accommodates ups and downs, starts and stops.
This positive thinking is not magical thinking: it does not prevent tragedy from happening or fix it when it comes. When God tells them that He will be with them, He does not say that only to reassure them, but because that is what they need to know in order to be successful. Telling them that everything is great and everything always will be is not the strategy of Sefer Devarim. Instead, God and Moshe prepare the people; they tell the people that they will stumble, but they also instill in them the confidence to understand that the setbacks need not be permanent.
The centrality of the need to have faith in possibility and a sense of our own strength is also found in the phrase לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ, He will not let you loose and will not abandon you, repeated twice in this parashah.4 According to Rashi, this terminology reflects that God is close, but it is the perception of the people which determines whether or not God feels close:
רש"י דברים לא:ו
לא ירפך. לא יתן לך רפיון להיות נעזב ממנו:
Rashi to Devarim 31:6
He will not let you loose. He will not give you weakness to be abandoned from Him.
Rashi explains that לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ, He will not let you loose and will not abandon you is not a redundant phrasing. That God will not abandon us is the core promise, but that promise is only as good as the guarantee that God will give us the strength to hold on to Him, that God will give us the capacity to believe in our relationship with Him. God doesn’t become weak or distant, but we do. How close we feel to God is a measure of the strength of our grip. So God promises proximity and He also promises us the ability to see that He is close.
The notion that how afraid or weak we feel is a choice that we can make is reflected by a talmudic statement in Massekhet Berakhot:5
תלמוד בבלי ברכות סג.
א"ר טבי א"ר יאשיה: כל המרפה עצמו מדברי תורה אין בו כח לעמוד ביום צרה, שנאמר התרפית ביום צרה צר כחכה (משלי כד:י).
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 63a
R. Tavi said that R. Yoshiyah said: Anyone who lets himself let loose (marpeh) of words of Torah will not have the strength to stand in a time of crisis, as it says, You let loose (hitrapeita) on a day of crisis (tzarah), so your strength has been narrowed (tzar) (Mishlei 24:10).
According to R. Yoshiyah, if you hold fast to the Torah, then you empower yourself in times of need. But if you let go of what gives you strength, then you will find yourself resourceless. This statement is not like other teachings in the Talmud that speak about Torah as having a protective quality—that as long as you are learning Torah or engaging in a mitzvah the angel of death cannot harm you.6 R. Yoshiyah understands that no matter how much Torah you learn, crisis will come. The point of holding onto the Torah is to equip you with wisdom and give you the emotional resources you need to overcome.
The use of the Torah for comfort and strength is movingly described in the following midrash:7
פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא יט:ד - אנכי אנכי
ר' אבא בר כהנא בשם ר' יוחנן: למלך שקידש למטרונא וכתב לה כתובה מרובה, כך וכך חופות אני אעשה ליך, כך וכך תכשיטין אני נותן ליך, כך וכך טיסבריות אני נותן ליך. הניחה והלך לו למדינת הים, ושהא שם שנים הרבה. והיו חברותיה מונות8 אתה ואומרות לה, עד אימתיי את יתיבה? סב ליך בעל עד דאת טלייה עד דחייליך עליך! והיתה נכנסת בתוך ביתה ונוטלת כתובתה וקורא בה ומתנחמת. לאחר ימים בא המלך ממדינת הים א' לה, ביתי תמיה אני היאך הימתנת לי כל השנים הללו? אמרה לו אדוני המלך אילולי כתובה מרובה שכתבת לי, כבר היו חבירותי מאבדות אותי ממך.
כך לפי שבעולם הזה אומות העולם מונים לישר' ואומרין להם: עד מתי אתם מומתים על אלהיכם?... כמה צער הוא מביא עליכם כמה בוזים הוא מביא עליכם!... בואו לכם אצלינו ועושין אנו אתכם דוכסין!… וישר' נכנסין לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות ונוטלין ספר תורה וקורין בו והתהלכתי בתוככם והפריתי אתכם והרביתי אתכם והקימותי את בריתי אתכם (ויקרא כו:ט) ומתנחמים. כשיגיע הקץ הקב"ה או' ליש' תמיה אני היאך הימתנתם לי כל השנים הללו? וישר' אומ' לפני הקב"ה: רבון העולמי' אילולי ספר תורה שכתבתה לנו, כבר היו אומות העולם מאבדין אותנו ממך... וכן דוד או' לולי תורתך שעשועי אז אבדתי בעניי (תהלים קיט:צב).
Pesikta deRav Kahana (Mandelbaum) 19:4
Abba bar Kahana said in the name of R. Yohanan: [It is analogous] to a king who betrothed a lady and wrote her an elaborate ketubah, “I will make this many huppot for you, I will give you these types of jewelry, I will give you this many treasure-houses.” He left her and went overseas, staying there for many years. All of her friends were taunting her and saying to her, “Until when are you going to sit? Get yourself a husband while you are still young and have your strength!” And she would go inside her house, take her ketubah, read it, and be comforted. After a long time, the king came from overseas and said to her, “My daughter, I’m surprised! How were you able to wait for me all of these years?” She said to him, “My master, the king! Were it not for the elaborate ketubah that you wrote, my friends would have made me lost to you.”
Similarly, since in this world the nations of the world taunt Israel and say to them, “Until when will you kill yourselves over your God..., how much pain and mockery He brings upon you!... Come to us and we will make you rulers!”… And Israel go into synagogues and houses of study and they take a Sefer Torah and read in it, I will walk in your midst and I will make you fruitful and multiply you and I will establish My covenant with you (VaYikra 26:9) and they are comforted. When the time will come, the Holy Blessed One will say to Israel, “I am shocked! How were you able to wait for Me all of these years?” And Israel will say before the Holy Blessed One, “Master of all worlds! Were it not for the Sefer Torah that You wrote to us, the nations of the world would have made us lost to You!”… And so David says: Were it not for Your Torah which calms me, I would be lost in my suffering (Tehillim 119:82).
This midrash compares the promises in the Torah to an elaborate ketubah telling a betrothed woman all that she can look forward to upon the marriage. The power of this document is not its legal force—until they are married, she receives no property—and it is also not the promises themselves; the woman is not looking forward to the fancy wedding. Rather, the promise of the many huppot and many gifts remind her of the love of her betrothed. The promises of the Torah work in a similar way. It is true that most of the time of our relationship with God, we are living in the promise of what is to come, and our ability to remain happy and hopeful during that time period is in our willingness to cling to and believe in the promises in the Torah. This is the testimony referred to in our parashah.
It is not the case that hope is delusional. Positive thinking about the future does not deny the reality of the troubles and sorrows of the present. What our parashah teaches is that narratives of failure lead to more failure and the narrative of possibility in and of itself can give a person the tools that they need to wait patiently and hopefully. Sometimes all we need is our own testimony in order to redeem ourselves.
When we are confronted with a friend who is suffering or going through a dark and difficult time, we should resist the urge to tell them that everything is okay or is better than it seems. When someone is in so much pain, it is evident that everything is not okay. Instead, we should echo Moshe’s message, both its honesty and its hope. We should recognize and validate the reality of the negative situation, but also give the person access to positive narratives of how they are going to make it through, how they will survive. We should remind them that they are strong and brave so that they can be strong and brave.
1 That is, pass away.
2 In the original Hebrew, the pronouns are in the masculine singular. I used “they” for the sake of readability.
3 See previous note.
4 Devarim 31:6 and 8.
5 This same teaching can also be found in Midrash Mishlei (Buber) 24:10.
6 See e.g. Talmud Bavli Mo’ed Katan 28a.
7 A similar teaching is found in Midrash Tehillim (Buber) 119. There, the midrash claims that during the exile in Egypt, Benei Yisrael were able to survive because on Shabbat they were able to study Torah.
8 מונים, monim is an unusual verb, but it shares a root with the more familiar term for taunting, ona’at devarim.