The biblical phrase “Be strong and have courage” (hazak ve-ematz) may have adorned many a cubicle in Ancient Israel, but it is associated in Scripture with one man specifically, one of the few heroes of Tisha beAv: Joshua, son of Nun.
This expression shows up ten times, in various conjugations, in the Torah and Early Prophets, and in nine of those cases, it is directed to, from or about Joshua, chief of staff, aide-de-camp and star pupil of Moses. The first time is in this week’s Torah portion, as Moses quotes God’s words to him (Deut. 3:28):
But charge Joshua, and strengthen him, and encourage him: for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see.
So with all this strength and courage, we would expect Joshua to shine in his first test, on Tisha beAv. Actually, it’s the eighth of Av when he and his fellow spies return from their surveyal of the land of Canaan. Remember, when the twelve of them set out, “Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua” (Numbers 13:16). We expect Joshua to rise to the occasion when most of the spies, led by Shammua and Shaphat, give a discouraging report. But Joshua’s name is not mentioned at all in the second half of the chapter. Instead, we find (vv. 30-31):
Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses, saying, “Let us go up and occupy it, for we are well able to conquer it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!”
It is not Joshua who speaks up, but Caleb. In fact, the clear implication is that he is a lone voice against eleven spies… including Joshua. Joshua is older and more seasoned, and he has already led people in battle. He has already faced Amalek, and beating them was not easy. He would have reason to be worried. Moreover, he has already expressed concern about Moses’ reluctance to confront challenges (Numbers 11:28).
Indeed, this would explain the initial decree (14:23-25) in response to the people’s grumbling (Plan B, actually, as Plan A is to wipe out everyone except for Moses):
They will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it. Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully – I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants will possess it. Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valley; tomorrow, turn and journey into the desert by the way of the Red Sea.
The initial decree is to turn back towards Egypt, precisely the way they came. This decree is addressed only to Moses, it excludes only Caleb, and it has no designated time.
However, this disaster is dynamic. On 8 Av, the people recoil; on 9 Av, the people revolt (14:4-10):
So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell down upon their faces before the whole assembled Israelite community. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of those who had investigated the land, tore their garments. They said to the whole Israelite community, “The land we passed through to investigate is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it to us – a land that is flowing with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord…
This time, it is not only Moses who is targeted, but Aaron as well, thus making the offense far worse than that of the Golden Calf. The people now want to return to Egypt, but under new management. This stuns Moses and Aaron and shocks Joshua. He now, in fact, takes the lead, and both he and Caleb tear their clothing and beg the people not to rebel. The response is a threat to stone them.
This leads to the final decree, as delivered to both Moses and Aaron (14:30-33):
…you will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised. But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this desert, and your children will wander in the desert forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the desert...
In fact, Moses’ recounting of the events in the first chapter of Deuteronomy gives the same impression: Caleb is spared because of his actions, while Joshua is spared because he must replace Moses (vv. 36-38; there as well, the forty-year decree is not mentioned until later).
This drastically changes our picture of the first Tisha beAv. We are used to seeing all of the players in stark black and white: the noble Moses, Joshua, Caleb and Aaron versus the vile quorum of Shammua, Shaphat & Associates. However, a close reading of the text shows us a different picture: Joshua, the man who will finally fulfill the promise of the Promised Land, is a conflicted individual. He recognizes the challenges of Canaan, but he also realizes that the greater danger is losing faith. At the end of the day, we too need to hear “Hazak ve-ematz!”