The Last Lesson of Torah Wisdom for 5780

NITZAVIM-VA’YALECH, this m’chubar (double) portion is also the final weekly Torah portion of 5780.

Nitzavim, offers us Moses’ dramatic final oration to the people. The opening verses provide the most inclusive listing of community leaders in the entire Torah. In D’varim 29:10 the list concludes with, Ma’Chotev Ay’tzecha Ad Sho’aev May’me’cha, “woodchopper to water drawer”. This week’s Torah text already understood what we learned during the many months of the pandemic every community must have ‘essential workers.

When the rest of the community was requited to quarantine in response to the COVID 19 virus, health workers and first responders were the first and most obvious to be labeled as ‘essential’. But we quickly learned that those who provided access to food whether from the grocery store or bakery were also ‘essential’. Then we learned that the truck drivers who brought the food, as well as the people putting the food on the shelves and the people who deliver the food to our homes are all essential.  Suddenly, all these people we had taken for granted, and maybe ignored had their roles illuminated, and we recognized them as ‘essential’.

In the ancient wilderness community of the Torah, persons who chopped the wood needed for fire and who carried the fresh water are considered as important as the chieftains and elders. This is a lesson about the social worth of everyone who shares in communal sacrifice and responsibility. Jewish tradition does not choose between the elite and the working people who did what the community needed to survive. As Moses ends his task, the Torah offers a pluralistic description of all who are called to lead the people as they enter the land. Our experiences of living through the COVID 19 pandemic, now intensifies our awareness of those whose labor is ‘essential’ though at times invisible. This week’s Torah portion reminds us to take time to acknowledge those who ‘chop the wood and carry the water’ for us in our time.

In Va’yalech, we find Moses’ blessing Joshua his successor; Devarim 31:7- Chazak V’Amatz, ‘Be strong and resolute!’ This same phrase is used again in Y’hoshua 1:6 as God blesses Joshua to accept the role and responsibility of leading Israel into enter the land of Canaan. These same Hebrew words are still used as a blessing; when we want to express our hope that someone we admire will grow in stature, maturity and stamina.

More than once during the past six months each of us asked that this blessing be extended to all the doctors, nurses, health-care workers, who faced the dangers of the virus in hospitals and nursing homes. When those among our family have had to travel, we have whispered to ourselves: we must all be strong and resolute! No one could have imagined the risks we would face with a virus that has brought infection and death, and still there is no vaccine, but living life cannot stop. Like Joshua, who was never asked, given all you know, do you want this position? At this moment, we too must find new skills, greater patience, deeper self-reliance, and even more unconditional hope, so we too yearn to hear both Moses and God, offer each of us: Chazak V’Amatz!

This is the final weekly Torah portion of 5780,  and we conclude this ‘unique’ year with two insights from our tradition. We learned through the stress of a quarantine that there are workers we should acknowledge as ‘essential’. But this contemporary lesson is included in this week’s Torah portion when the biblical text lists those that chop wood and carry water, jobs we no longer need nor even imagine. So as we begin another year, it is good to be reminded that every community survives because of those whose work, though absolutely necessary, is all too often not recognized as it should be.

May each of us be blessed as we begin 5781 with the same words offered to Joshua: “Be Strong and Courageous.” These words will sustain us as we continue to face the challenges of health, safety, justice and hope in an unknown future.

About the Author
Joseph has linked his congregational rabbinate and academic careers with interfaith relations, contemporary philosophy, and serving Jews who are sometimes ignored. He is retired in Rio de Janeiro where he teaches, writes and volunteers his rabbinic time in communities without rabbis. He has written "What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human"