In thirty verses, Parshat Va-Yelekh manages to insert the topic of strength of heart and courage three times. In verse six, just after Moshe tells the Jewish people Hashem will go before them and conquer the Canaanite nations, he says hizku ve-imtzu, be strong and courageous. The next verse, he calls Yehoshu’a before all the people, and delivers a similar call, as Yehoshu’a is about to lead the people into Israel. In verse 23, Hashem repeats the charge to Yehoshu’a, to be strong and of courage. Why do they need so much courage, when Hashem is promising to take care of the conquest for them?
Two issues the Torah raises between verses seven and twenty-three suggest an answer. In verse ten, Moshe introduces the concept of Hakhel, the obligation to gather the entire people on Sukkot after a shemitta year, where the Torah will be read, for them to hear, to learn, to develop or fortify their fear/awe of Hashem, to observe the mitzvot.
In our times, we are fortunate to have seen a commemorative revival of the practice (the next one will be Sukkot 5783/2022, be”H; mark your calendars). I have been fortunate enough to attend more than one, and they are moving experiences. But they do not seem life-altering. Is hearing some Torah read at seven-year intervals really enough to keep Jews connected to awe/fear of Hashem, to careful observance of mitzvot?
The next topic, verses 16-22, offers an answer. Hashem tells Moshe the Jewish people will turn to other gods after Moshe’s passing, incurring a loss of Hashem’s Presence, a hester panim, a hiding of Hashem’s face, as it were. Hester panim leads to terrible troubles, enough of a reminder for the Jews to realize they have brought it on themselves, and to return to Hashem.
The way Hashem ensures we know to draw the right lessons is by commanding each of us to write a Torah—including especially Ha’azinu, the song making the basic point of Jewish history, when the Jews follow Hashem, life goes well, when they do not, it does not. The shirah, the Song of Ha’azinu, will be there to show them where they’ve gone wrong, will remind them to repent and restore the relationship.
How loose a hold on Jews’ allegiance Hashem expects! At the end of a Torah filled with commands shaping Jews’ every move, the last moments of Moshe’s life put into place ways to make sure the Jews stay connected to Hashem every seven years and, if Jews live down to Hashem’s low expectations, in their times of worst trouble.
It will all start with the move into Israel, where they will confront a culture the Torah deems to be one of the most depraved, theologically and sexually. The Jews had already failed to resist the lures of Moav and Midian, and now they had to face the Canaanites. Military victory wasn’t the worry, Hashem would take care of that.
They needed strength and courage, I am suggesting, to resist the Canaanites in all ways, to reject their model of anything, including how to live or love. They needed strength and courage to overcome their instincts and fulfill Hashem’s command to wipe out the Canaanites, so as not to fall prey to their way of life. Yehoshu’a would need it to lead them to do what they would surely resist.
In fact, they were only partially successful, in that first generation. Yehoshu’a conquers much of Israel, not all, and clearly some Canaanites remained in the land. More, Yehoshu’a 24;14, his last speech to the Jewish people, urges them to set aside the gods their fathers had worshipped. Radak says he means idols they brought from Egypt and/or booty from the war with the Canaanites.
The fear of success, the fear of being led astray, the fear of losing sight of where we started and the truths we used to know we had to hold self-evident, these were the fears Hashem was telling the Jewish people to have the strength and courage to overcome,
In Danny Collins, a movie I am fonder of than it deserves, a young musician fears losing sight of his early goals. In the movie version, the musician does fall fully away from his early self, descends into a life of self-indulgence. The Torah hoped Jews would follow its ways fully; if they didn’t, they would have a reminder every seven years. And if that didn’t work, if worse came to worst, if they found themselves in exile, wandering a harsh and unforgiving world, they would have the Torah and the shirah to point the way. Back to Hashem and back to the good life Hashem waits and longs to give them.
A path they might have stuck to originally, and we can stay with at any point, if we have strength and courage.