If we knew that we had but one opportunity to speak to those who would follow us, what would we choose to say? This is the task that confronts Moses in the final book of the Torah. Should he praise, critique, teach, or bless?
Curiously, much of what Moses narrates in this week’s portion deals with rebellion, strife, and absence of faith. He recalls the relentless disagreements among, and constant carping from, the people. He tells of the failure, 38 years earlier, to enter the Promised Land after the people were depressed and deflected by the report of the spies.
The Midrash suggests two explanations for Moses’ critique. Rabbi Acha taught: It would have been more appropriate for the pagan prophet Balaam to utter rebukes, and for Moses to pronounce blessings. But if so, the Israelites would have dismissed the rebuke, since after all it came from an enemy; and likewise, the world would have ignored the blessings spoken by Moses, since he was hardly a neutral observer! Consequently, God had Moses rebuke and Balaam bless, so that the integrity of each utterance would not be in question.
In another midrash, Rabbi Shimon teaches: When God instructed Moses to repeat the words of the Torah [as Deuteronomy portrays], Moses refused at first to utter the rebukes. Rabbi Shimon made this analogy: A disciple walking with his teacher saw a glowing coal lying in the road; thinking it a gem, he picked it up and got burned. Later, in a similar situation, he saw a gem lying in the road, but fearing it was a coal, he passed it by. Then his teacher said: pick it up, it is a sparkling jewel. So too Moses: the last time he had rebuked Israel (Numbers 20:10) the consequence was the punishment of being denied entry into the Promised Land. So God said to Moses: Do not fear [to speak these words].
These midrashim suggest different perspectives on the reasons for Moses’ opening his discourse with reminders of rebellion. Rabbi Acha suggests that only a trusted leader can speak words which reprove, for only he has the confidence of the community and the record of responsibility. He is the one more likely to be heeded.
Rabbi Shimon suggests that the rebuke does not come through Moses, but rather from God through Moses. Moses’ initial reluctance to speak words of condemnation is overcome with his acceptance that it is God’s condemnation, not his own, that he is conveying. It is God who makes it acceptable to speak words of judgment.
Moses may have hoped that by reminding the generation born in the wilderness of the failings of their fathers and mothers, that they would avoid the errors that resulted in their losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. Rabbi Acha’s midrash indeed suggests that this was the task for which Moses was uniquely qualified.
But as Rabbi Shimon suggests, such a task needs the support of something beyond ourselves, a sense that that task at hand is important not only to us but to God. Moses can only speak because his anxiety has been assuaged.
How hard it is to listen to stories of strife, and to be reminded of failures. But how important it is to hear these necessary and important words from someone we trust, someone who has demonstrated loyalty to us, and someone who has convinced us that she or he speaks out of a concern greater than their own interests.