If we knew we had but one opportunity to leave a legacy, what would we say?
This is the task confronting Moses as we begin the final book of the Torah. Poised at the edge of the Promised Land, knowing his remaining time is brief, Moses’ task is to teach the new generation the events leading to this moment and thereby inspire fidelity to the Covenant God had established with the Israelites.
Much of what Moses recounts deals with rebellion, strife, and absence of faith. He recalls the appointment of administrative associates necessitated by the relentless disagreements among the people. He tells of the failure of the people, 38 years earlier, to invade the Promised Land after being depressed by the spies’ report.
A midrash suggests two explanations for Moses’ remarks. Rabbi Acha taught: It would have been more appropriate for the pagan prophet Balaam (see Numbers 22) to utter rebukes and for Moses to pronounce blessings. But if so, the Israelites would have dismissed the rebuke, since it came from an enemy; likewise, the world would have ignored the blessings spoken by Moses, since he was hardly a neutral observer. So God had Moses rebuke and Balaam bless, so that the integrity of each utterance would be unquestioned.
In another midrash, Rabbi Shimon teaches: When God instructed Moses to repeat the words of the Torah, Moses refused at first to utter the rebukes. Rabbi Shimon made this analogy: A disciple walking with his teacher sees a glowing coal lying in the road; thinking it a gem, he picks it up and gets burned. Later, in a similar situation, he sees a gem lying in the road, but fearing it is a coal, he passes it by. Then his teacher says: 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 says to Moses: Do not fear [to speak these words of rebuke].
These midrashim suggest different perspectives: Rabbi Acha suggests that only a trusted leader can speak words that reprove, for only he has a record of responsibility and is most likely to be heeded.
Rabbi Shimon suggests that Moses’ initial reluctance to utter the rebuke implies that the necessity was imposed on him; 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 they would avoid the errors that resulted in their losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. Rabbi Acha’s midrash suggests this was the task for which Moses was uniquely qualified. But, as Rabbi Shimon suggests, such a task needs the support of a sense that the task is important not only to us but to God.
How hard it is to listen to stories of strife, to be reminded of failures. But how important it is to hear these words from someone we trust and who has convinced us she or he speaks out of a concern greater than his or her own interests.