Parshat Devarim: Moshe’s Final Speech: A Reprimand
Rabbi Avi Farkash Bar is a Straus-Amiel shaliach serving as rabbi of King David High School in Vancouver, Canada
Parshat Devarim, which opens the Book of Devarim – also known as the Mishneh Torah – begins with Moshe’s final address to the People of Israel. At this point in time, the well-known words of the prophet Amos are perfectly apt in describing Moshe and the People of Israel: “Can two persons walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3, 3)
Moshe Rabeinu led the people of Israel through the hardships of the great desert: long hours of hunger and thirst under the scorching sun and, more importantly – day after day of acute uncertainty.
This was not only a walking expedition; rather, it was a formative journey which made it possible for a nation to be born ahead of the entrance to the Promised Land. However, to our great astonishment, instead of pushing onwards and leading the People into the Land for which all have been yearning for so long, Moshe stops and speaks at length to the People.
Perhaps this is the time to recall that initially Moshe had no desire to take on the mission with which God had charged him, and had replied that he was “heavy of tongue” and could not lead the People, not having the oral skills required for the job. But, lo and behold, 40 years later, Moshe is seen to deliver an extraordinary speech, which would become a formative moment in the history of the People of Israel, as if no impediment of speech had ever existed.
Moshe’s address to the People is not an appeasing or soothing one. On the contrary, Moshe wants to make sure the People understand full well that he will not be entering the Land with them – but without saying so explicitly. He wants them to grasp the fact that an era was coming to an end, and that from now on they would be fending for themselves and taking on the responsibility of establishing themselves as a nation in the Land.
If until this point in time the People of Israel had a sort of “wondrous patron” who could solve any problem and take care of all their wants and whims, once they enter the Land there will no longer be a Moshe-figure to guide them or protect them. The nation will have to inhabit the Land on its own and assume control over itself.
A closer examination of the events described will reveal that they are strikingly similar to the developmental stages of most individuals. As children, we are dependent on our parents for just about everything, but as we grow older, we become more independent until we learn to stand on our own two feet.
Moshe does not assume a gentle tone when addressing the people. Rather, he reprimands them for their improper behavior throughout the journey and cautions them lest they be tempted into worshipping the gods of the nations of Canaan. If we fast forward for a moment, we will, unfortunately, discover that the People of Israel did not heed Moshe’s words, at least not entirely. During the years of conquest and later as well, in the period of the Judges, the People of Israel stumble and fall many a time, until they are ultimately exiled from the Land. However, a broader historical view will show that the People of Israel did, in actual fact, embrace Moshe’s words in his final speech to them.
There is no other example in world history of a nation that survived outside the borders of its homeland for 2000 years, all the while adhering to its faith and willingly sacrificing its life for the sake of its beliefs and the observance of God’s commandments.
Following the horrific Holocaust, we were fortunate to return to the Land of Israel and establish the State of Israel. The People of Israel – those living in Israel and those in the Diaspora – all joined forces to vouchsafe the prosperity of the young modern state, recognizing the crucial need for mutual responsibility.
We, as shlichim, stand at the forefront of this national accountability – both for the State as well as for Diaspora Jewry. May we merit to fulfill our shlichut in the best possible way.
King David High School is a private high school in Vancouver, Canada, and comprises some 300 students. Girls and boys from all over British Columbia attend the school, which is the only Jewish high school in the entire province. The school is known for its excellent scholastic program, both in Jewish studies as well as in general studies.