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Torah Commentary
Nitzavim/Vayeilech (September 16, 2017)

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them. — Deuteronomy 31:7-8

Bettijane Eisenpreis

We have come to the end of Moses’ life. The great leader, who has shepherded the Israelites from slavery through the desert, will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. With grace and foresight, he is instructing Joshua, his chosen successor, on how to face the challenges that lie ahead.

And what does he say, how can he inspire this young man? The Hebrew scriptures that have been passed down to us through the ages record his charge to Joshua as Chazak v’emetz. According to the translation in the JPS Hebrew-English Tanach (Torah) that we use at Temple Emanu-El, that phrase means “Be strong and resolute.” It must have done the trick because we know from the Book of Joshua, which follows the Five Books of Moses, that Joshua won the Battle of Jericho and led the people into the Promised Land.

I looked up “resolute” in the dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary, Second Collegiate Edition) and found “characterized by firmness and determination: unwavering.” These are certainly characteristics of a leader. But are they enough?

The Tanach we use at Temple Emanu-El is the most recent translation by the Jewish Publication Society. It was prepared carefully by a committee representing scholars from the three branches of Judaism. Each word and phrase was considered before it made it into the text. So, “Be strong and resolute” probably was the most accurate translation of the Hebrew text. But tell me something…Has anyone ever quoted “Be strong and resolute” to you? What about “Be strong and of good courage?” I thought so! The second translation is the one in the old Jewish Publication Society Bible, the one I got for my Confirmation in 1950. It still is used by both Jews and Christians. (The King James Bible says, “of a good courage,” but let’s not quibble.)

The dictionary definition of “courage” is “the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger with self-possession, confidence and resolution; bravery.” So, courage includes resolution but not the other way around.

The old translation says, “of good courage.” Is there such a thing as bad courage? I don’t know if I would call it courage exactly, but I think of the stories of soldiers who became so inflamed with the idea of killing their enemies that they charged ahead and shot everyone in sight, soldier and civilian alike. The old Bible adds the word “good” just to make sure we know the kind of courage of which Moses is talking. It is the kind of courage that brings to mind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the martyrs of our people, someone willing to risk prison or death to stand up for what is right.

When I read “of good courage” in my old Bible, I think of Moses, the father figure, urging his successor, Joshua, not only to be strong and courageous but to stand up for what is good and right. And that is a lesson that still rings true.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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