Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim-Vayeilach 5769 - THE HANDOFF

            For some reason the National Football League never asked me for my opinion, but if they did, I'd tell them it's still too early for football.  Number one, because there's still so much baseball to play, and second of all my memory of playing football was when there was a cool, crisp snap to the air and the leaves started to turn.  Anyway they've begun and I have to start using my pigskin metaphors, even if it's not kosher or in agreement with the weather outside.  And this week's parsha is a good place to start, because there are two overriding issues which jump out at us, and both can be applied to the upcoming New Year.

            The first ten verses of chapter 30 are called the section of Teshuva (Repentance).  I remember when I was young, Rabbi Harry Brazil, who had a major influence on my becoming observant, got up on Shabbat and instead of delivering a sermon (really that was pretty smart because he had a lot of speeches to write for the upcoming High Holidays) told us to read these verses, because no better message had ever been delivered before these Days of Awe in the past 3300 years.  Of course, I didn't.  But now, 45 years later, I know that he was right.  Before dying, Moshe is telling us the stuff we really need to know, and this is a big part of it.  Someday, you Jews will completely return to God, and everything that God ever told us will be firmly embedded in our hearts and souls (Deuteronomy 30:2).  This return will not only be to the words of the Torah and God, but there will be a physical return.  No matter how far from Israel or Torah you may find yourselves pushed and shoved, you will return (Ibid. verse 4).  Who ever thought when I was a 14 year old kid sitting in a little shul in Malden, Massachusetts and afraid of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union that I would live to see hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union come to live in Israel?  And even more farfetched, in my wildest fantasies who expected to dance with tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport.  What a half century we have seen!  A two thousand year wait concluded; a three thousand year old promise fulfilled.

            But I don't think that these stirring words and images are the most dramatic part of the parsha.  The other major topic discussed in this week's Torah reading is the transfer of power from Moshe to Yehoshua.  This material is very important.  Like many instructions in the Torah, it is delivered twice.  When a certain set of directions are really crucial we first have God's commanding the mitzvah to Moshe, then we have Moshe transmit the directives to the interested party.   Usually the second party is either the Jewish nation or Aharon.  Here the party of the second party is Yehoshua.  There are discrepancies in the two renditions, and they are informative. 

            One part of the script which remains the same in both versions is very famous, especially to Sephardim.  When we Ashkenazim are wishing Yasher Koach to each other for a synagogue job well done (or not), our Sephardic cousins are declaring Chazak V'ematz.  The first time that this phrase appears is here, and it is usually translated as 'be strong and courageous.'  The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michal, 1809-1879) explains this double phrase to mean first the awakening of the necessary bravery to overcome inertia.  This is called chazak.  Then, remaining strong for the maintaining of that initiative is called ematz.  The Talmud (Berachot 32b) explains one term as bravery in the face of battle and the other as courage to fulfill God's Torah.  I've always felt that one term described the inner bravery to motivate myself, and the other portrays the power to inspire others.  This is a basic requirement for political and military leadership.

            There is, however, a fascinating little switch in the terminology.  The first rendition when God is instructing Moshe to charge Yehoshua the critical word is tavo, meaning to go with the people.  But when Moshe actually talks to Yehoshua he says tavi (a very small discrepancy, the shift of that littlest letter, yud).  This means to bring in the other people.  Leaders must be both members of the collective while motivating others to greater exertion.  This idea is very important to me.  No leader ever expects others to do things that the person in charge wouldn't do themselves.  A general can't ask soldiers to perform feats of prowess that he wouldn't himself.  A rabbi can't demand of congregants behavior patterns that he wouldn't adhere to.  In a very few words a lot information about the demands of leadership have been conveyed.

            Moshe adds two more crucial aspects of this transfer of power (verse 23).  He commands Yehoshua to keep the promises he had made himself.  This is important.  New leaders can't revisit every agreement made by their predecessors.  No one would trust us every again.  This teaches us that leaders represent the nation not just themselves.  There may be changes in policy, but those alterations must be done with great care and a responsible amount of warning.  Finally Moshe tells his successor that he will always be with him.  Whoa, and how's that work?  Moshe is going to die imminently.  Is this a science fiction story line, like when Obi Wan tells Luke that he will always be with him?  I believe that we're hitting on an essential element to the continuity of the Jewish nation.  The people and the new leader must feel confident that this is, indeed, a continuation of the tradition.  Without that assurance there will be no continuity.  The new leader keeps the promises of the old, and then the old leader remains with him.  How is that assessed?  The people sense this presence through the authenticity of the style and content of the new regime.

            Now we can understand the juxtaposition of the two topics that we read about this week.  Initially, we are assured that the nation will find its way back both to the land of Israel and to the Torah of Moshe.  Then we are informed of the transition of power to Yehoshua, with Yehoshua being strong on his own and loyal to the legacy of Moshe.  These two issues work in concert.  We can't find our way back if our leadership has broken with the past and its covenant.  They guide us on the path back.  Think of the legitimate leadership of our people as the trail of bread crumbs.  This only works when we sense the past in our present leaders.  We must always pray for a clean hand off to new leadership, and never a fumble.