Change is always a challenge, and all the more so in the context of the religious attempt to understand the word of the eternal, unchanging God. Constructing a narrative of immutability is convenient, comforting, and fitting to be the theme of the first chapter of Nevi’im. Yehoshua, Moshe’s long-time trusted understudy, already officially invested in Moshe’s time, smoothly, naturally assumes leadership, and his authority is immediately accepted by the people. “As we listened to Moshe, we will listen to you” say the two-and-a-half tribes. Everything seems set up to ensure that this Torah given to Moshe will “not move from your mouth, and you will learn it day and night”- a perfect, seamless transition, without rupture or change.
But rabbinic midrash (Temura 16a) comes to disabuse us of this fantasy, presenting a grittier, more realistic picture. Immediately following Moshe’s death, thousands of halachot are forgotten, lost. According to one midrash, the people are so upset by this rupture that they’re ready to kill Yehoshua.
But their demand to reconstruct the lost halachot, to retrieve the ‘good old days’, is rebuffed with a quote from some of Moshe’s very last words to the people. “It’s not in heaven” (Devarim 30). The fantasy of immutability necessarily creates a distance between our current reality and the glistening ideal of the past, because reality is ever changing. A belief in the immutability of the law demands the denial or negation of the messy circumstances of the here-and-now. The Torah exists ‘in heaven’, an ideal far from the place we live.
No, says Yehoshua, and God affirms his position. The verse continues: “This thing is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to do it.” In one midrash, God’s response is “I can’t reteach it to you. Go involve them in war.” There is no going back. It is the Torah given to Moshe, true, but now, this Torah is in “your mouth.”
Be strong and brave. Go meet the challenges of the day head on.
The 929 project has just begun the books of Neviim with the book of Yehoshua — it’s a great time to join or rejoin! This is a blog of reflections on the daily chapter of Tanach, following (sometimes with a delay) the 929 project. Learn more at 929.org.il