Be Strong…

Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, we are witness to Moses’ final day on earth. He is 120 years old and knows that he will not be entering the Promised Land. He appoints Joshua as his successor and completes the writing of the Torah, which is placed in the Holy Ark. Moses is fearful that when he dies, the Israelites will act wickedly, and as the parashah concludes, Moses prepares to recite the song that the Almighty has taught him.

A great sadness sweeps over me as we prepare to read the last portions of the Torah. Moses’ death is inevitable: God knows it, Moses knows it, and the multitude of Israelites know it. Yet no matter how many times I have read this portion and the two that follow to conclude the Torah, I know the story will not change. The ending is always the same; nonetheless, I am momentarily seized with grief.

We often think of the reading and study of the weekly Torah portions as a circle without end, but I think of it as a spiral circling back to the beginning, but never in the same way. The gift of Torah is that although the words and stories do not change, how we perceive and understand them differs each time.

This time around, I was struck by the following message Moses publicly conveys to Joshua:

“Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that God swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And God will go before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).

Moses will repeat the words, “Be strong and resolute,” to the new leader of the Israelite nation later in the portion and in the opening verses of the Book of Joshua, God shares these words with the new leader of the Israelite nation:

“Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them. But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go (Joshua 1:6-7).

When I read these words this week, the spiral that is Torah had me recall the voice of Dr. Jack Horowitz, of blessed memory, who was the director of Education in 1988, when I arrived at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles just weeks after ordination from the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I was truly a novice, but Jack quickly became a friend and mentor whose advice for me was always: “Chazak v’amatz. Don’t weaken. Be strong and of good courage!”

Jack was a wizened, almost elf-like man who wore cardigan sweaters even in the summer, could charm the most disobedient students, and surrounded himself with a religious school filled with teachers who lovingly tried to share the joy of Jewish tradition and Hebrew language with an often-rambunctious collection of after-school students. He was a teacher’s teacher and more than that, he became my Moses in the congregation.

When I had a problem teaching my very first confirmation class, I went to Jack.

When I needed advice about a situation with a bar mitzvah family, I went to Jack.

When I sought ways to re-vamp the b’nai mitzvah program, I went to Jack.

Always after offering me sage advice, he would conclude the conversation with, “Chazak v’amatz…Don’t weaken…Be strong.” In the halls of the school building, I would hear Jack Horowitz’s gravely sing-song voice: “Oh Cantor… remember Chazak v’amatz.”

These words have helped me many times and in multiple situations. I heard Jack’s voice telling me “Chazak v’amatz” when I entered the hospital room of a congregant on life-support. I, in turn, said these Biblical words to an anxious bar mitzvah student as we entered the sanctuary right before the beginning of the Shabbat morning service. I say “Chazak v’amatz” to my rabbinic and cantorial students right before ordination, as they stand on the cusp of a new career. And each year before I enter my HUC classroom for the first time, I say these words to myself.

Jack Horowitz was no Moses, and I was no Joshua—but these ancient words have helped us, like Joshua, walk with courage as we navigate unknown, difficult, and unpredictable events in our lives.

Chazak v’amatz!

When we began our study of Deuteronomy many weeks ago, I likened the opening of the last book of the Torah to the musical number from the Broadway show “Hadestown,” where the narrator of the show sings: “It’s an old song…it’s an old tale…but we’re gonna sing it any way…”