This week’s Torah portion, the first parashah of the fifth book, Devarim – literally “words,” but often translated as “Deuteronomy” – serves as a background for a fast-paced review of the Israelites’ past 40 years or so.
Throughout the book, Moses delivers a speech, an ethical will of sorts, to the new, desert-born generation. The entire book of Devarim is a 37-day speech by Moses, beginning on the 1st of Shevat and ending on the 7th of Adar – the day of his passing – in the year 2488 from creation (1273 BCE). Thus, this speech is delivered about five weeks before his death.
It is understood that the first four books of the Torah were written by Moses, reflecting what God said (i.e., and God said to Moses) and the fifth was recorded in Moses’ own words (i.e., and God said to me). This is the setting for Moses’ final statements to the nation he lovingly tended for four decades.
Reading like an exciting story, Moses revisits the period, some 39 years earlier, before the Israelites left Mount Sinai at God’s behest, with the intention of immediately entering Canaan.
At that time, Moses expressed to the Jews his inability to single-handedly bear the burden of leadership, because “God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance.” In time, Moses appointed a hierarchy of judges to preside over the nation, reminding them about the basics of judicial integrity.
Moses then recounts how the Jews traveled through the desert and quickly reached the southern border of the Holy Land. He recounts the tragic episode of the 12 spies who were sent to check out the land of Canaan, and how 10 of the scouts delivered a frightening report, claiming that the land was unconquerable.
Only two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, admitted that the road ahead was fraught with many challenges, but said that with the help of God, they would surely succeed. This caused God to bar that entire generation from entering the Promised Land, and they murmuringly headed back to the Sinai Desert.
Moses then fast-forwards 38 years. The generation that left Egypt had perished in the desert and now a new generation was ready to enter Canaan. To make it “real,” Moses delineates the actual borders of the lands allotted to the tribes.
Then Moses announces that Joshua will lead the nation into Canaan. Joshua is enjoined not to be fearful of the battles that he will face, because “it is the Lord, your God, who is fighting for you.” As a matter of fact, Joshua is blessed with a certain “invincibility” status.
So, two questions arise: Why was Joshua selected to succeed Moses? And whatever happened to Caleb?
Joshua – Hoshea, later Yehoshua – was Moses’ able assistant throughout their travels from Egypt to Canaan. He was selected by Moses to choose and command a fighting group against the Amalekites for their first battle after exiting Egypt. It was a tough confrontation, against a powerful adversary, but the Israelites were victorious.
Sometime later, Joshua accompanied Moses when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He also was witness to Moses breaking the Ten Commandments when they discovered that the Israelites had been worshipping the Golden Calf.
Joshua also waited outside the Tent of Meeting while Moses communed with God. And, of course, he was one of the spies who spoke encouragingly about the prospects of conquering Canaan.
Joshua is considered a strong and optimistic leader who possessed an unyielding faith in God and in Moses. A charismatic warrior, he led the conquest of Canaan. His exploits are recounted in a Biblical book bearing his name.
Toward the end of his life, Joshua admonishes the Israelites with these words: “Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left.”
Thus, we can understand why Joshua was chosen as Moses’ successor.
And now, on to Caleb. He was the son of Yefuneh, from the tribe of Judah. During the altercation with the 10 spies, Caleb was enthusiastically adamant that the conquering begin almost immediately. The narrative recalls it as follows: “And Caleb stilled the people toward Moses and said: ‘We should go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.’ ”
Several myths have been woven to celebrate Caleb’s commitment to the cause. One story has it that Caleb wanted to bring produce from the land, but the other spies told him not to do it to avoid giving the Israelites a positive view of the land. However, after Caleb threatened them with a sword, they agreed to bring samples of the produce.
Another story tells that while in Canaan, the spies were attacked by giants, but Caleb’s overpowering voice chased the giants away.
Caleb’s reward for his steadfast faith in God comes as the land of Canaan is being divided. We read in the book of Joshua that when Joshua was apportioning the land to the various tribes, Caleb asked to be given the hilly land of Hebron as a token of his faith in God. And Joshua did so.
We can learn much about leadership from Joshua and Caleb. Their examples model what it means to remain strong to one’s convictions, to be able to see the big picture and to not be afraid. Perhaps the prophet Micah had them in mind when he wrote: “And what does the Lord require of you? … to walk humbly with your God.”
Hey, world leaders – pay attention!
RABBI ETHAN ADLER is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth David, in Narragansett.