“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

‘Be strong and have courage!’ Torah’s rallying cry still echoes 

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 31:1-30

This year, in the suspended time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read the shortest portion in the Torah. At just 30 verses, Vayeilech contains an immensity of message and power that far outsizes its brevity.

Moses is 120 years old. The terror and sadness in the Israelite camp must have been palpable as the luminous teacher and deliverer arrived at his final crossroads. Joshua stands by, ready or not, to take the baton and lead the people forward under the banner of God.

The fear of what lay ahead was likely extreme. But three separate times, this little parshah sends up a rallying cry that echoes to this very day: “Chazak v’ematz! Be strong and have courage!” (Deut. 31:6, 7; Deut. 31:23)

Moses first encourages the people as a whole to be brave. He uses the same words (in the singular) to Joshua alone, and then God (echoing Moses!) speaks directly to Joshua for the first time: “Chazak v’ematz! Be strong and have courage, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I shall be with you.” (Deut. 31:23)

A remarkable mantra this turns out to be — chazak v’ematz carries over into the Book of Joshua, appearing three times in chapter 1 alone, with both God and tribal heads encouraging Joshua to “be strong and have courage!” Only after a dramatic series of military victories, divine revelations and painful setbacks does Joshua garner enough self-assurance to take up the theme himself. To his army officers and leading men, he is ultimately able to urge them: “Be strong and have courage!” (Joshua 10:25)

The numerous exhortations to cultivate fortitude and resolution, as Moses departed and the nation crossed the Jordan, cannot be accidental. These qualities don’t come easily or quickly, and the Bible is clear — repetition and consistency are key to their development. In times of peril and upheaval, these traits are especially valuable, though individuals, even and especially at the very top, might likely feel fragile and afraid.

The Jewish Imperative to Cultivate Courage” is an inspiring and truly worth-your-time essay by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. It draws from many cultures to laud the importance of courage, the soul-trait which, he argues, underlies all others. Courage is absolutely essential for fulfilling our life’s destiny and our soul’s potential. But we do not have to be of the ranks of Moses and Joshua to be counted among the courageous. Every person, especially at this holy time of reckoning, can examine their inner life to see where fear and hesitance may prevent them from becoming their most excellent and realized self.

Rabbi Yanklowitz offers eight facets of courage: being, will, speech, action, restraint, mind, spirit and heart. Although he allows that his list isn’t exhaustive, it is persuasive and compelling, an invitation to view our choices through the lens of courage, and consider which aspect of courage is required and in play as we go along the many roads of life.

On “Courage of Action,” Rabbi Yanklowitz teaches that “it takes a healthy amount of courage to maintain conviction and propel action. Nelson Mandela, whose life story is the stuff of courage, wrote: ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’”

About “Courage of Speech,” we learn, “A vital element of spiritual courage is being able to speak up when it is terrifying to do so. The late social activist Maggie Kuhn (1905–1995), who spoke out passionately for protections for senior citizens in America, said powerfully: ‘Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes!’”

And regarding “Courage of Heart,” we read that “being vulnerable is not equivalent to being weak or cowardly. On the contrary, vulnerability is an element of greater courage.… We must learn to listen so that we know what opportunities and moments are crucial for us to cultivate courage for.”

Psalm 27, the psalm of the penitential season, is recited traditionally for the entire month of Elul, continuing in many communities throughout the High Holy Days until the end of Sukkot. Perhaps not coincidentally, it concludes with the same refrain we find so many times in Vayeilech and beyond: “chazak v’yaamtez libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai — be strong and have a heart of courage, and trust in the Eternal!” (Psalm 27:14)

This is the season to build our spiritual muscle and face the future with confidence. Chazak v’ematz! And may we all be sealed for a good and sweet year.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].