01 January 2011


on Joshua 1
I'm often awakened in the middle of the night by the voices of conscience in my head and usually they're the voices of past teachers.  I hear them, as if in the room, and through the silvery darkness I imagine their faces, usually smiling, offering advice.  I understand why mystics call these moments visions, because they do take on a rather odd, supernatural quality; but for me, in these liminal moments between night and day, it's what I ascribe to my psychology and soul working together in the relaxed state of near-sleep/near wakefulness.

It's where succession takes place.

Joshua experiences it quite clearly in the beginning of his eponymous biblical book--and though he doesn't experience a vision, the narrative is quite clear in the structure and cadences of its Hebrew as well as in the literary tropes and forms of its activity, that he is succeeding Moses.  After all, in the books opening lines, Joshua is described immediately as "Moses' minister," that is to say, servant or even disciple.

"Moses My servant is dead," God tells him, "Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.  Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it, as I spoke unto Moses."  Moses himself, you will recall, inherits this narrative construct from God, learning as he came of age in Egypt, that God, through him, would fulfill promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Moses had met none of them; but he willingly takes upon their obligations as his own.  Joshua's connections to Moses are more intimate, more similar to the Patriarchs shared, inherited narrative than Moses' own break with history in actually claiming his Jewish identity, which is why, perhaps, the Joshua story begins in such a familiar style as that of Torah, though technically, it is outside the Five Books.

The moment of succession had to have been enormously charged and weighted with an uncommon sense of awe and responsibility.  Even the descriptions of the land the people were to inherit connotes vastness in geography and scale:  "From the wilderness, and this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your border."  And later, "beyond the Jordan toward the sunrising."

The inheritance is, as one of my teachers put it, "a totality."  I hear his voice and I see his face say that and sometimes I even whisper it to myself, keeping him alive.

In its overwhelming scope, Joshua is brought into line with a new guiding principle of his existence, that he is to muster the will to be "strong and of good courage" in order "to observe to do according to all the Law, which Moses my servant commanded thee, turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest."

People don't say whithersoever as much as they should.

Where the sun rises and where the sun sets are geographic borders.  Land.  Wealth.  Where Joshua is meant to lead the people, in Moses' tradition, is the territory of the Law, of morality, of the good.

I remember the first time I realized that I would likely not be a wealthy man in the material sense:  the summer we sold our house, a couple of years after the folks' divorce, when I was already in the habit of accumulating mentors--teachers to serve.  They opened up fields of inquiry and sight-lines previously unseen.  They made connections between ideas and events with a kind of radiological precision that explained things.  And in so doing they created a narrative inheritance that would surpass in riches what any storehouse of silver and gold could offer.  (Though there are still a couple cars I'd like to one day buy.)

As I lay in bed sometimes, pondering my fate, I hear the voices, a chorus, harps and angels.  "This book of the law shall not depart from thy mouth but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy ways prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.  Have not I commanded thee?  Be strong and of good courage; be not affrighted, neither be thou dismayed; for the Eternal thy God is with thee, whithersoever thou goest."

Baseball coach.  Social Studies Teacher.  Professor.  Mentor.  Rabbi.

Wherever I went I found them and though each are now gone from my life, their voices give strength and courage.

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