Moshe’s Final Message
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s sedra, Devarim, is the first parsha in the fifth and final Book of the Torah. It consists of Moshe’s last teachings and exhortations to the people he had elevated from the degradation of slavery to one which had been charged by the Hashem to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He had led them through the travails of the wilderness, an experience which had taken its toll on the people and their leaders. This was a crucial and auspicious moment. The forty years of wandering were over all those who had partaken of the sin of the spies had passed away. A new generation had arisen whose first assignment would be to invade and conquer the land, a task which their parents had not found the courage to perform. Moshe found himself in a most difficult position. It is clear from his many petitions that he wanted very much to participate in the conquest of the land. He kept praying to be forgiven for his sin and allowed the privilege of taking possession of the “inheritance of the Lord.” The Rabbis discuss the reasons for Moshe’s powerful desire to be allowed to dwell alongside of his brethren in the land of Israel. In rhetorical fashion they ask: “was it because he desired to taste the fruits of the land?” They reject the notion that Moshe was interested in enjoying any of the material pleasures that are to be obtained in the “land which flows with milk and honey.” Rather, they conclude, his motives were purely idealistic. They depict him as saying “there are many mitzvot that are bound up with the land, let them be performed through me.” Moshe knew how challenging it would be to conquer the land and establish the Torah way of life in it. He believed that his personal participation in this endeavor would be a great source of inspiration and strength for the people. That is another reason why he prayed so hard for Hashem to rescind His decree. However He had other plans.
Moshe was, first and foremost, the great teacher who taught G-d’s Torah to His nation, Israel. That is why in spite of all his political achievements he is known to Jews throughout the ages as Moshe Rabbenu (our teacher). This insight provides the key to understanding the essence of the Book of Devarim. It consists of the talks that Moshe conveyed to the Jews in the final days of his life. We can see the tremendous love and concern which he had for his people. He reminded them of the great challenge of conquest which lay before them and asserted that while their parents had failed in this task, they would find the courage to fulfill it. He told them how much he wanted to join with them in this journey but that Hashem had decreed that he would not “pass over this Jordan.” The Jews would go on without him as Jewish life is never dependent on any particular individual, no matter how awesome. Judaism is eternal because our great teachers remain alive through their teachings which we study, preserve and transmit to the next generation. At this point in his life Moshe’s political activities were complete. He now focused exclusively on his true mission, to be the teacher of Klal Yisrael.
Thus he finalized the system of mitzvot, reviewed certain laws and elucidated the “Hashkafa” (value system and outlook) of Judaism which is incorporated into the commandments. His final message to the Jews was that we should study the Torah carefully, not “add to or detract from it” or distort it in any manner. In addition, we should not just observe the letter of the law in a mechanical and perfunctory fashion, but implement its values and live according to its philosophy of life so that all who observe us will declare “What a wise and discerning people is this great nation.”