Parashat D'varim

Words Of Admonition

Moses, finally, at the end of his life, able to transition from a man of action to a man of words, rebukes the Israelites, who are receptive to his criticisms.

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In contemporary terms, this indicates incredible educational insight. Moshe Rabbenu--Moses, the greatest teacher our people has known--understood that each person learned in his or her own distinct way, and spoke so that all could understand. This is not an easy feat even for the most skilled teacher, but it is critical if you want everyone to understand.

There is, however, some irony in Moses' development into such an inspiring teacher and speaker. These opening words of Deuteronomy serve to emphasize that fact. Lest we forget, 40 years earlier Moses was a man with little skill in speech. As a young shepherd, commanded by God out of the burning bush to confront Pharaoh and lead his people out of slavery, Moses responded by saying, "I am not a man of words" (Exodus 4:10). But now Moses has become a master of words, speaking eloquently and sufficiently to fill an entire book and inspire an entire people.

Rabbi Pinchas Peli (z"l) noted that, had Moses been a man of words when he first assumed the mission of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, he might have become, as so often happens, a "captive of his own eloquence." He might have spent the rest of his life making fiery speeches about the importance of freedom, rather then leading the people to discover it for themselves. What was needed at the time, Peli concedes, was a man of action, not of words.

It was only years later, with many years of experience behind him, that Moses becomes a man of words. His time to speak comes at the end, when he knows that his days of leadership are coming to an end, when he has brought the people as far as they can go at that point, and there is little left that he can do for them. So he uses the little time he has left to share with them his thoughts and feelings and ideas--his words.

And what were these "words" he decided to share at this time? Or, as one midrash (Yalkut, Devarim 788) asks, "Are these the only words which Moses spoke?" And then the midrash provides the answer: "These words are in a special category. These were words of admonition." Our tradition suggests that Moses' words, which he spoke to all the people at the beginning of Devarim, were words of rebuke. Rashi writes that Moses, "is enumerating all the places where they provoked God to anger."

The midrash goes on to say that Moses chided no one until shortly before their death. He wanted to make sure that they would not get into the habit of repeating rebukes, for that would evoke a negative reaction (Yalkut, Devarim 800). Now, just before his own death, Moses takes the opportunity to rebuke the entire community. It is said in Proverbs (28:23), "He that rebukes another shall in the end find more favour." As a credit to his skills as a preacher, we are told that the people were fully and unanimously receptive to Moses' criticisms (Sifrei, Devarim 1:1).

No one likes to hear criticism or be taken to task for our own shortcomings. But it is important for our own growth and development on occasion to hear from those we love and respect (and who love and respect us) when we may have strayed from the path to our best selves. As the leader of the people, Moses had to earn their love and respect before he could admonish them.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.