Parashas Devarim


Rabbi Bernard Fox


“And it was in the fortieth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, Moshe spoke to Bnai Yisrael regarding all that Hashem had commanded him for them.”  (Devarim 1:3)


Moshe delivered the address contained in Sefer Devarim at the end of his life.  Moshe’s address contained a rebuke.  Rashi asks why Moshe waited to deliver this rebuke.  Would it not have been more appropriate to have chastised the nation earlier?  Why delay encouraging the Bnai Yisrael to examine their behavior?


Rashi responds that Moshe based his decision on the actions of Yaakov.  Yaakov waited until the end of his life before reprimanding Reuven for serious shortcomings.  Moshe decided that he too should patiently await the end of his life before chastising the nation.


Rashi discusses Yaakov’s motivation for delaying his reprimand.  He explained that Yaakov feared that Reuven might abandon him and follow Esav.  In order not to estrange Reuven, he did not deliver his rebuke until his death approached.  Moshe also feared that he might alienate the nation.  Therefore, he followed Yaakov’s precedent and delayed his discussion of the nation’s shortcomings.[1]


A number of questions present themselves.  Let us begin with Yaakov’s decision.  First, why did Yaakov believe that Reuven might not accept his rebuke?  This is a very serious criticism of Reuven’s character.  What is its basis?  Second, how did Yaakov resolve this concern?  Why did he feel that he could be more effective at the end of his life?  Third, the laws concerning rebuke are very specific.  Maimonides discusses the basic requirements of the law.  He explains that when we encounter a person acting improperly we are to challenge the individual.  If the behavior continues, we are to persist in correcting the person. [2]  It does not seem that the law encourages postponement of this obligation.  On what basis did Yaakov and Moshe delay fulfillment of their obligation to correct wrong-doers?


It seems that we must distinguish between two types of rebuke.  One type is addressed towards a specific behavior.  We might tell a person that he or she has indulged in gossip.  A person may correct a friend for talking during prayers.  Dealing dishonestly in a business transaction may occasion a reprimand.  In all of these instances, the rebuke is directed at a specific action.


A second form of rebuke extends beyond any specific action.  In this type of rebuke the censure is directed at the person’s personality or being.  Specific acts might be identified.  However, the objective is to identify a pattern of behavior.  This pattern reflects a basic flaw in the very essence of the individual. 


These two forms of criticism have different effects.  This is a direct consequence of human nature.  Every person has a self-image.  We strive to see ourselves positively.  Our reaction to criticism is influenced by this need to maintain a positive self-image.


The first form of rebuke is relatively benign.  This is because it does not seriously threaten this self-image.  It is directed against a specific action.  We can accept this criticism without risking our overall view of ourselves.  However, the second type of rebuke strikes directly against our self-image.  We are being told that we have the flaw.  We might become defensive and attempt to deny the flaw.  If we are repeatedly challenged with the criticism, we may seek to flee.  Flight sometimes seems preferable to admitting a basic fault.


Maimonides seems to discuss the first form of rebuke.  It is relatively harmless.  This is the form of reprimand that should be offered immediately and as often as necessary.


Yaakov was proffering the second form of rebuke.  He carefully considered the best time to level his criticism.  We can understand his fear.  He intended to identify a basic flaw in Reuven.  He knew that every individual is sensitive to such criticism.


Yaakov waited until the end of his life.  How did this delay address his concerns?  If Yaakov had offered his criticism earlier, he would force Reuven to choose between only two options.  He could accept Yaakov’s criticism.  This would require a painful personal reassessment.  Alternatively, he could choose to avoid this emotional anguish and flee.  However, it would have been very difficult for Reuven to reject the truth of the rebuke and remain a member of the household.  Every time he encountered his father, he would be reminded of Yaakov’s assessment.  Even if Yaakov never repeated his criticism, Reuven would know Yaakov’s opinion.  He would constantly be reminded of his father’s disapproval.  Flight would be the only way to avoid these reminders.


Yaakov waited.  As the end of his life approached, he addressed his son.  He hoped he would accept the criticism.  But Yaakov also accepted the possibility that Reuven might reject his reprimand.  By waiting until the approach of death, Yaakov provided Reuven an alternative to flight.  He could simply deny the accuracy of the insight.  Yaakov would soon die.  Reuven could remain a member of the household.  No one would remind Reuven of his shortcoming.


Moshe understood Yaakov’s concerns and the wisdom of his solution.  He applied Yaakov’s insights to his own situation.




“And I approved of the idea.  And I selected from among you twelve men – one man from each tribe.”  (Devarim 1:23)


Sefer Devarim begins with Moshe’s final admonishment of Bnai Yisrael.  He reminds the people of their sins in the wilderness and the consequences of these misdeeds.  He reviews the incident of the spies. 


This incident occurred in the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness.  The nation was poised to enter the land of Israel.  The people suggested sending spies to scout the land. Moshe asked Hashem.  Hashem told Moshe to approve the suggestion.  However, Hashem amended the original plan.  He did not allow the people to choose the spies.  He insisted that Moshe make the selection himself.


Why did Hashem insist that Moshe personally select the spies?  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that Hashem knew that this task required uncommonly brave individuals.  He wanted Moshe to chose spies who had the necessary courage.[3] 


Seforno expands upon this explanation.  Seforno explains that the report of these scouts would influence the attitude of the people.  A positive report would generate enthusiasm.  A negative report would discourage the people.  The scouts must be individuals that will appreciate the fertility and wealth of the land.  They must be capable of reporting accurately.  Moshe was commanded to choose individuals who had the ability to execute this duty.[4]


What was the impact of this selection criterion?  The spies returned.  They delivered a negative report.  Bnai Yisrael was discouraged.  They did not believe they could conquer the land.  They refused to follow Moshe into the land of Israel.


It seems that Hashem’s criterion did not affect the outcome of this affair.  In fact, His insistence on choosing spies of courage and integrity may even have had a negative effect.  These individual were above reproach.  Spies of lesser stature could have been more easily opposed.  Moshe could have denounced lesser individuals and challenged their credibility.  Why did Hashem insist upon a selection criterion that had no impact and seems to have contributed to a disaster?


Seforno explains Hashem’s insistence on sending these suitable individuals did have a positive affect.  In order to identify the impact, we must begin by identifying the components of the spies’ report.  There were three elements to the report.  They described the land.  They assessed the likelihood of its conquest.  They evaluated the suitability of the land for occupation.  Let is consider each element of their report.


The spies claimed that the land could not be conquered.   It was occupied by mighty nations.  The people lived in strongly fortified cities.  They reported that the land was not fit for occupation.  They said the land consumed its inhabitants.  However, they acknowledged the overwhelming richness and fertility of the land.  They even demonstrated this extraordinary fertility.  They placed before the people beautiful fruit that they had brought back.  In fact, they asserted that only very robust individuals could thrive in such a rich environment.[5]  In other words, the spies reported the facts accurately.  They praised the richness of the land.  They mislead the nation in their interpretation of their observations and their judgments.


Next, we must review the consequences of the nation’s sin.  The Almighty decreed that the generation that had refused to enter the land would wander in the wilderness.  The conquest of the land would be postponed until this generation died.  The next generation would enter and conquer the land of Israel.

Upon learning of their punishment, Bnai Yisrael confessed their sin.  They attempted to repent.  They marched into the land of Israel.  However, this was not true repentance.  Real repentance required accepting the Almighty’s decree.  Through advancing into the land, Bnai Yisrael was denying this decree.  Hashem did not assist this attempt to defy His will.  Bnai Yisrael were attacked by the inhabitants and beaten back.


Bnai Yisrael then repented again.  This time the repentance was performed with a contrite attitude.  The nation cried to Hashem and begged His forgiveness.  This repentance was sincere.


We can now appreciate the positive affect of Hashem’s criterion.  What caused Bnai Yisrael to repent?  Clearly, they were moved by Hashem’s decree.  They would not enter the land of Israel.  However, this does not completely explain the people’s new attitude.  Why did they view this as a punishment?  They had refused to enter the land!


Seforno explains that the report of the spies was crucial in reshaping Bnai Yisrael’s attitude.  The spies had truthfully reported that the land was rich and fertile.  The lushness of the land of Israel was never debated.  Now, this generation realized that the opportunity to possess this land had been within its grasp.  They had squandered the opportunity.  This realization made contrition possible.  In other words, without the accurate report of the spies, repentance would have been more difficult.[6]  Hashem insured that this report would be delivered through His selection criterion.  In short, this criterion did not prevent the nation from sinning.  However, it did facilitate Bnai Yisrael’s repentance.

[1]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:3.

[2]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:6-7.

[3]   Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.

[4]  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:22.

[5]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:32.

[6]  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:22.