Moshe’s Last, Crucial Words
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Torah reading commences the fifth and final Book of the Torah, Devarim, which is fundamentally different from the other four Books of the Pentateuch. Those works exclusively contain the words that Hashem dictated to Moshe, who functioned essentially as a faithful scribe without making any changes in the story.
But Sefer Devarim is different. Moshe knew that his journey on earth was nearing its end. He dedicated the last days of his life to communicating his final insights and teachings to B’nei Yisrael. When he completed this task, Hashem told him to incorporate all his addresses and make them the last Book of the Torah. Moshe reached the level where the words he uttered were worthy of attaining the exalted status of Torah.
It would seem that great leaders do not leave the scene silently. They have accumulated much useful knowledge and insights into the strengths and weaknesses of their people, which they don’t want to simply take to the grave. The concerned leader desires to impart certain messages which can be of great benefit to future generations.
And what better time is there to reinforce vital spiritual ideals than when one’s time is up and is, for all intents and purposes, “no longer in the game?” Knowing that the leader is soon to depart, the people will listen to his words with rapt attention, seeking clarity on all matters pertaining to proper moral behavior and religious observance.
The timing also affords the leader an opportunity to express criticisms and unpleasant truths, which might not be too welcome at other times. People will be less inclined to view his negative words as being self-serving when he is conveying them in the shadow of eternity.
In the Book of Devarim Moshe reviewed certain Mitzvot which required greater amplification and introduced new ones which had as yet not been revealed. The entire Jewish religion revolves around performance of Taryag (613 Commandments), and these needed to be clarified to the greatest degree possible.
But Judaism is not restricted to performance of the Mitzvot alone, as we are enjoined to be a Holy People. The Torah contains a philosophy of life which is embedded in the Mitzvot. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe elucidated some of the fundamental philosophical ideas of Judaism.
For example, in Parshat Vaetchanan he reveals that the Jews, due to their brilliant elucidations of the Torah, are to be regarded by the nations as a “wise and discerning people.” And in Parshat Eikev he deflates any notion of inborn superiority, and explains why Hashem has chosen the Jews to be His special People. There are many other theological doctrines which are expressed at various places in the last Book of the Torah.
The main feature of Moshe’s “last will and testament” is the complete absence of personal reminiscences and stories which are designed to garner praise. Moshe has absolutely no “agenda” and no interest in promoting a personal image or legacy. There is, furthermore, no evidence of any material which would cause one to say that Moshe was concerned about his “place in history.”
The fact that he was uninterested in being popular and well-liked, can be seen from his willingness to express sharp criticisms of B’nei Yisrael. One example is in Parshat Eikev where he states, “You shall therefore realize that not in your merit does Hashem, your G-d, give you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” No contemporary Rabbi could, with even the best of intentions, deliver this type of communication to his congregants and hope to retain his position.
But there is an important teaching here. We all want our leaders to inspire us by making us feel good and telling us how wonderful we are. But there is more to a great leader than that. We must seek out the truly knowing individuals who have special wisdom and whose love for the people is manifested by their courageous willingness to be brutally honest when necessary.
My newest book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind on VaYikra was recently published, and is now available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09SHRXS3Q
I hope that my essays will enhance your reading and study of the Book of VaYikra and would greatly appreciate a brief review on Amazon.com.
Additionally, for those in Eretz Yisrael, my books are available at David Linden’s bookstore located at Emek Refaim Street 21, Jerusalem and at Pomeranz Book store, Be’eri 5 Jerusalem. They are very nice stores to visit and browse.
—Rabbi Reuven Mann