School of Soft Knocks
Volume 2 Issue 47
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Parshas Vayelech has Moshe handing the reign of power to his beloved
disciple Yehoshua, who now will grasp hold of the destiny of the Children
of Israel. Moshe does not leave him without first guiding him through the
difficult mission of leadership. At the end of Parshas Vayelech,
(Deuteronomy 31:7), "Moshe summoned Yehoshua and said to him before the
eyes of all Israel, 'Be strong and courageous and do not be broken before
them, for Hashem your G-d -- it is he who goes before you.'"
The Torah does not specify what "strong and courageous" actually means. I
conjured my own visions of how to be strong and courageous when dealing
with a "stiff-necked" nation. It entailed exacting demands and rigid
regulations. The Medrash, however, offers a totally diametric explanation.
The Yalkut Shimoni, a compendium of Midrashim compiled in the Middle
Ages, discusses a verse in Hoshea. "Israel is but a beloved lad and
in Egypt I had called them my child." It quotes the verse in Deuteronomy
31:7, and explains the words "strong and courageous." Moshe explained to
Joshua, "this nation that I am giving you is still young kids. They are
still young lads. Do not be harsh with them. Even their Creator has called
them children, as it is written, (Hoshea 11:1) "Israel is but a beloved lad."
Can the Midrash find no better words to translate the phrase telling
Joshua to "be strong and courageous" other than be patience and
understanding? In which way does forbearance show strength? How does
courage translate as tolerance?
In the years of World War I, a young student who was fleeing the
war-ravaged city of Slabodka sought refuge in Tiktin, a village near Lomza,
Poland. A prodigious Torah scholar, he compensated for room and board by
becoming a simple cheder teacher. He gave his lecture in a small
schoolhouse, but the townsfolk were quite suspicious. There were no shouts
from inside the one-room schoolhouse as it was with other teachers; the
boys seemed to be listening. Rumor had it that the young man even let the
children play outside for ten minutes each day in the middle of the
They decided to investigate. They interrupted his class one morning and
were shocked. The kanchik (whip) used by every cheder-Rebbe was
lying on the floor near the trash bin. Upon interrogating the children the
parents learned that this radical educator never used it.
Outraged, the townsfolk decided to call a meeting with their Rabbi to
discuss the gravity of the situation. Who knows what ideas a teacher who
would not use the kanchik was imbuing in our children? They worried.
The local Rabbi pointed to a picture of Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Spector, the
leader of Lithuanian Jewry. "Do you see that picture of the Kovno Tzadik?"
He asked the townsfolk. "One day thousands of homes across the world will
have this young man's picture hanging on their walls."
The elderly Rabbi was right. The young man became the leader of a
generation, teacher of thousands and dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. It was
the beginning of, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky's career in education.
Moshe, the guide and architect of Jewish leadership, was empowering his
disciple with a message of guidance. The words "be strong and courageous"
embodied leadership of love and understanding. One can not talk of
forbearance and patience without talking of strength and courage. But more
important: one can not show true strength and courage if he is not patient
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