This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, which opens the fifth book of the Torah of the same name, finds Moshe beginning his tragic farewell speech to the Jewish people:
“Eileh Ha’Devarim Asher Diber Moshe El Kol Yisrael Be’Ever Ha’Yarden….”
“These are the words which Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people on the other side of the Jordan…” (Devarim 1:1)
Forty years after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people, gathered together on the East bank of the Jordan River, are finally ready to enter the land of Israel.
But Moshe will not be going with them. One can only imagine what must have been going through Moshe’s mind. A lifetime’s effort was finally about to bear fruit: after all the trials and tribulations of transforming a nation of slaves into a people with a mission, the Jews were about to come home. And it was time for Moshe to say goodbye.
So what do you say when this is the last opportunity to teach the second generation of Jews, who for the most part did not grow up under the whips of Egyptian servitude?
“…and so Moshe explained this Torah saying: Hashem our G-d spoke to us at Chorev (Sinai) saying…” (1:5-6)
Apparently, Moshe is about to review the point of it all: the commandments we were given at Sinai. Except that he doesn’t.
In fact, Moshe begins what seems to be a random review of a number of extremely unpleasant incidents which don’t seem to be all that significant, and doesn’t even mention any of the commandments, the mission, or even the purpose of entering the land itself.
Moshe launches into a lengthy description of exactly where the Jewish people were when Moshe spoke to them (1:1-5). Why was it so important to know exactly where this speech took place? This is especially challenging, as the place described could not possibly have existed!
“…In the desert (the Midbar), in the Arava, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan, Chatzeirot and Di’ Zahav….” (1:1)
If they were in the Arava, the wilderness south of the Jordan valley, then they were not opposite Suf, the Red Sea (known as Yam Suf). Indeed, Rashi quotes Rav Yochanan (in the Midrash Sifri) who points out: “We have searched the entire Torah and know of no place called ‘Tofel and Lavan’…”
Tradition teaches that all these names were allusions to events that occurred in the 40 years of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert.
“These words (spoken here by Moshe) “are words of chastisement, and Moshe lists here all the places where the Jewish people angered G-d, therefore they (the places) are only alluded to, out of respect for the Jewish people.” (Rashi 1:1, quoting the Sifri)
The Midrash connects these unknown names with some of the painful episodes, which occurred to the Jews in the desert. Di-Zahav (Zahav is the Hebrew word for gold) alludes to the golden calf; Tofel Ve’Lavan refers to the Jews’ denigration of the manna, which was white (Lavan), etc.
This is what Moshe chose to say upon bidding farewell to the Jewish people? What could possibly be the benefit of listing all the terrible things done in the past at this juncture? Not that there is no benefit to be learned form past mistakes, but not here and not now!
• • •
Moshe here has an enormous opportunity. Why is he squandering this moment by telling the Jewish people off?
Rashi points out that the words “Eileh Ha’Devarim” (“These are the words”) refer to words of rebuke, making this the opening theme of the entire book of Devarim. Why?
Perhaps to understand what is going on here we need to take a closer look at what reproof (tochachah) is really all about.
There is actually a mitzvah in the Torah to tell someone off, given the right circumstances:
“Hocheach Tochiach Et Amitecha.”
“And you shall rebuke your colleague (or friend).” (VaYikra 19)
If you see someone doing something, which is a violation of Jewish tradition, there is a mitzvah to rebuke that person, and it appears to be incumbent upon any one of us to tell this person off and somehow “bring them back” to the path of Jewish tradition!
This mitzvah, called tochachah, is challenging to say the least. What of “live and let live”? Does telling someone off, for what I may perceive to be misguided behavior, really cause him or her to mend the error of his or her ways?
Maimonides makes a fascinating point in his Hilchot De’ot (Laws of Character Traits). “When a person errs against his fellow, he [the person who was wronged] should not be silent. … Rather, it is a mitzvah to let him know (Le’Hodioh’) and tell him: ‘Why did you do such and such a thing to me’…
“If one sees his friend erring [transgressing] or pursuing a path which is not good, it is a mitzvah to return him to goodness [a good path] and to let him know [Le’Hodioh’] that he is transgressing against himself with his wicked ways, as it says: ‘Hocheach Tochiach Et Amitecha,’( ‘And you shall rebuke [or give reproof to] your colleague’).”
(Maimonides De’ot 6:6-7)
Maimonides here is describing two types of rebuke: one where a person does something wrong to me, and the second, where a person does something wrong to himself.
Incredibly, the motivation for telling someone else off has to be love for that other person. If it is all about me, and what he has done to me, then there really is no point to it. The question is, do I care so much about my fellow human being that I can’t bear to see them doing something that will result in them hurting themselves.
Maimonides is suggesting that the goal of tochachah is not to rehabilitate someone so that they will be able to function in our community or society. The purpose of tochachah, ultimately, is to teach me how much this other person is already a part of our community. In fact, the Hebrew word tochachah actually comes from the same root as hochacha, or proof. When I care enough about the mistakes that I perceive a friend to be making that I take the time and the effort to involve myself in them, what I am really doing is re-proving just how much I care about them.
But it is much more than that.
The first time we find mention of Da’at in relationship to human behavior is in the fourth chapter of Bereishit (Genesis):
“Va’Yeidah Ha’Adam Et Chavah Ishto’, Va’Tahar, Va’Teled Ben.” “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to a son.” (Genesis 4:1)
Adam had relations with Eve. Da’at is also about relationships. The laws of De’ot then, are the laws of relationships. And tochachah is all about healthy relationships
If I am a guest at a dinner party, and a stranger is behaving rudely, say, speaking with his mouth open, I can’t imagine I would say anything. But if that were one of my children, I would absolutely say something, and would view it as part of my responsibility to share with them what was missing or lacking in their behavior. And this is precisely because I love them so much, and want them to grow to be all that they can be.
If my wife tells me I am doing something wrong, what that really means is how much she cares about me, because if I were some stranger, she wouldn’t bother.
Perhaps this, then, is what is going on here in the book of Devarim. As the Jews are about to enter the land of Israel, Moshe is expressing to the next generation how much he really cares about them. One might think that a part of Moshe would be only too happy to see them fail, proving that the Jewish people without Moshe just don’t have it.
But Moshe wants to see them make it. He wants them to learn from past mistakes, and wants them to know that it all starts with relationships.
This is not to say tochachah is so simple. The Talmud and other sources make it pretty clear that there has to be a reasonable assumption that the person you are speaking to will actually listen, and that if words of tochachah will lead to enmity, one is not permitted to speak out.
The tradition is replete with examples of how reprove must come from love and care for my fellow and that he or she must see that, and indeed Maimonides makes clear that this process occurs when one sees one’s friend (chaveiro) doing something. There is an assumption that the person you are speaking to is your friend, and that they know it is coming from a good place. In fact, it is not at all clear that most people today are even capable, much less allowed, to give tochachah.
Ultimately, if I take the time to give tochachah, what I am really demonstrating is how much I believe in the person I am communicating with. If I didn’t think they could change, I wouldn’t bother. Tochachah suggests that I believe you are worth it, and I believe you can grow and change.
Perhaps what Moshe was saying to the Jewish people was, “I believe in you, and you can do this. You are a part of something incredible, and you have the power to do something here that will still be meaningful thousands of years from now.” And Moshe was right, because here we are.
Here in Israel of late, there has been a lot of back and forth by some groups of Jews regarding what other groups of Jews, in their perception, are doing wrong.
Perhaps we all need to work harder to make sure that this comes from a place of love and caring.
And maybe this is why we read this portion just prior to the fast of Tisha’ Be’Av, when the Talmud tells us the Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred. Maimonides points out that not giving tochachah can actually lead to hatred, and sometimes telling a person off for what he has done wrong clears the air and allows, again, for the building of a healthier relationship.
May Hashem bless us this year, to rediscover the things we all share in common, and to tap in to how much we really care about each other, so that soon, instead of mourning what was lost, we may rejoice in what has been rebuilt.
Wishing you all comfort on Tisha B’Av, and a Shabbat Shalom, Binny Freedman