“And these are the words which Moshe spoke” – Moshe’s spiritual legacy to the People of Israel
Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Conversion Institute for Spanish Speakers
The portion of Devarim opens the fifth and final book of the Torah, the Written Law, and focuses largely on Moshe’s departure from the People, as well as on how Moshe prepared them for entry into the Land.
“And these are the words which Moshe spoke” – the words in question constituted Moshe’s final address to the People, and encompassed the entire history of the nation – from the moment of its inception until the very end of the long journey in the desert – summarizing the period of Moshe’s leadership, peak moments and low points included. Moshe wishes to elaborate upon the true essence of this nation, albeit young in years, all too familiar with hardships and crises; and more particularly, to highlight the eternal covenant that exists between the People of Israel and its God.
The same leader that said of himself when he was initially appointed that he was “not a man of words” but rather “slow of speech and slow of tongue” appears before us, on the eve of his death, as a great orator. Through his words, Moshe directs the People of Israel to learn from every single event in the desert.
“These are the words which Moshe spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-Zahav. It is eleven days journey from Horev unto Kadesh-Barnea by the way of mount Seir” (Devarim 1:1-2).
Moshe specifies a long list of places where the Israelites had stumbled and sinned during the course of the turbulent journey through the desert, from the time of the giving of the Torah henceforth: the sin of the complainers; Kivrot Ha’ta’avah (the sin of those who desired meat); the sin of Miriam; the sin of the spies and the resulting punishment; the calamity that befell those who wished to enter the Land unlawfully; the sin of Korach and his congregation; the waters of Meriva and the hitting of the rock; the terrible moral downfall at Shitim with the daughters of Moab and the idolatry that ensued, culminating in the public sin of Zimri ben Salu with the Midianite woman.
Moshe does not erase the People’s failings, nor does he try to embellish them. On the contrary, he feels responsible for rebuking them and instructing them. Coming closer to God includes downfalls, and these are a natural part of the Redemption process. Moshe guides the People on how to illuminate these failures.
Rabbi Kook writes:
“…one’s ingrained morality holds one to do justice, act benevolently and aspire to wholeness. Moral perfection is not easily achieved, for it is difficult for man to channel every single deed to purity and unblemished justice! So how can one aspire to that which is unachievable? The answer is that this is the nature of man, but it is also what makes man whole. If man has a natural tendency to fail and to flaw justice and morality, this still does not mean he is not whole. The reason for this is that man’s wholeness is based on man’s constant yearning for that which is whole and perfect…” (Orot HaTeshuva 5: 6).
This state of wholeness becomes all the more apparent with each crisis that ensued along the way. The craving for perfection is a prerequisite for free choice. Reality is not static. As such, it must, by its very definition, contain downfalls and failures. By overcoming these, the special trait of the People of Israel is put into effect – the ability to move forward. The failings and flaws in the desert are also an expression of the profound processes which take place in the innermost parts of every individual. One can liken the desert to a womb, in which the People of Israel take shape and form before their birth as a sovereign nation in its homeland. The growing pains experienced in the womb are only natural, and are also crucial for the development of the fetus. Pain is considered to be a natural symptom of healthy development.
Similarly, the downfalls of the People of Israel were vital for their very inception as a People. Moshe was concerned that the nation standing at the edge of the desert, on the verge of entering the Land of Israel, would lose its mental and emotional capacity, as well as its faith in its ability to complete the journey out of the womb and into the Promised Land.
The Even Shoshan dictionary defines the world “failure” as “the state of not achieving the goal”. Moshe Rabeinu wanted to teach the People of Israel that failures are an inherent part of the ultimate goal, a crucial component for achieving growth and an integral part of the learning process. On every journey one undertakes there is a lesson to be learned. As is written in the tractate of Gittin (43:1): “One can only acquire full understanding of the Torah if one has fallen and stumbled first.”
Moshe wishes to teach the People of Israel that Torah study comes through falls, trials and tribulations in all areas of life. No matter in which area of life – food, war, social conflicts, emotional distress or otherwise – we all have our blunders and our failings. However, we must learn to turn these into a springboard for living a meaningful Torah life that takes root in one’s heart during times of crisis. Having the insight that God wants man to truly realize his inner self in this world helps one accept the fact that in order to achieve this “discovery of the self”, one has to set forth on a long journey across the desert. Nineteenth Century British writer and philosopher George Bernard Shaw said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Roman Gary, a Jewish novelist, wrote a book called Little Failure. Gary, quite openly, shares with his readers that Little Failure was a nickname given him by his own mother. She started calling him thus when he immigrated to the USA from Leningrad, and she was sure he would be a total failure. But as it turned out, the degrading label had actually helped Gary harness the strength needed to cope with any situation. Ultimately, it pushed him to grow and succeed. Roman Gary wished to change his mother’s old-fashioned “shtetl mentality”, proving to her, to the world and large and even to himself that failures will not dampen his spirit nor make him fainthearted. Rather, they gave him a whole new awareness. Failure is a crucial factor of life, so there is no reason to fear it.
In our times, too, there are a great many pains and crises, and oftentimes these evoke feelings of doubt and loss of faith. Nothing would be more befitting than learning from Moshe Rabeinu, the greatest of all prophets, by adopting his philosophy and understanding his legacy: Despite the downfalls, the defeats and the tribulations – whether on the personal or national level – we must never despair. Rather, we should pick ourselves up, even if we are rock bottom, and view the human condition as one that, by definition, is comprised of pain. If we are able to adopt this worldview, we will be able to overcome the obstacles which often blur our vision and prevent us from coping with the situation. In turn, we will know how to find inner happiness even in times of great crisis, turning these into formative moments of faith.
“Rabbi Abahu said: Whenever [the Torah] uses the word ve’eleh [“And these”] it wishes to add to the events mentioned earlier; however, if the word eleh [“these” without the “And”] is used, the new events that follow cancel out the previous events” (Midrash Rabbah on Devarim).
The Book of Devarim begins with the words “Ve’eleh hadevarim – And these are the words which Moshe spoke”. This choice of words denotes that what is to follow adds to all that has already happened, and is not detached from it. In other words, Moshe’s words give insight into all the historical events that had taken place, in keeping with the notion that robust development is only possible where there are also hardships and defeats. It is our job to make the best of these and learn from every pitfall, without letting the fear of failure hinder our progress.