Vayelech – What’s your motto?
Rodgers and Hammerstein are famous for giving the world some of our most celebrated musicals. They have a special place in my heart because of the musical Carousel, which I have never seen. The reason is that this musical gave us the song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which was released by the British group Gerry and the Pacemakers in the 1960s and was adopted as the anthem for my team Liverpool Football Club. The title has become the club’s motto, and the words adorn the club’s crest and the famous Shankly Gates at the stadium. You’ll never walk alone fits the club, which has its foundations in the local community and the sense of camaraderie one finds there.
There is no official motto or tagline for Judaism, but it is interesting to think what it could be. We could take the words of God to Abraham: ‘And you shall be a blessing’ (Genesis 12:2), or maybe from Deuteronomy ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20). However, as we reach the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and the conclusion of our Torah, one might be forgiven for thinking that our motto is ‘be strong and have courage’. This instruction features prominently in this week’s Torah portion and is then repeated several times by Joshua in his Biblical Book.
Coming towards the end of his speech, Moses reminds the people: ‘I am one hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; also Adonai has said to me, You shall not go over this Jordan’ (Deuteronomy 31:2). They are soon going to be without the man who has led them for the previous forty years and throughout their time in the wilderness. And preparing them for the conquest of the land he says: ‘be strong and have courage, fear not, nor be afraid’ (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Having given this instruction to the people, Moses then spoke to Joshua, in the presence of all the people and said to him: ‘Be strong and have courage; for you must go with this people to the land which Adonai has sworn to their fathers to give them’ (Deuteronomy 31:7). The charge is then given to Joshua again, in the first person, suggesting that it was from God through Moses: ‘Be strong and have courage; for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you’ (Deuteronomy 31:23).
‘Be strong and have courage’, in Hebrew Chazak Ve’Ematz may therefore be considered a motto for the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Land of Israel. It is possible that Joshua received this charge twice, once because he needed the strength and courage to be at the front as the Israelites conquered the land, and once because he needed the strength and courage to simply deal with the Israelites as their leader.
It is in many ways a very fitting motto for the community. The combination of strength and courage speaks to the human-divine partnership, and the covenant between God and the Israelite community. We must have strength, because we cannot simply wait for God to intervene on our behalf, but the courage which we have speaks to our faith that God is there with us. Only together can we reach the Promised Land; with the courage which faith in God gives us and the strength which we ourselves possess.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman
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The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.