Ok, I get it. Yeah, the Torah gives us a long history of mistakes. At one point, we were even wishing that we'd never gotten involved in the exodus from Egypt. We were looking back with longing to Egypt and perfectly willing to be slaves there again. That's why HaShem* decreed that a whole generation of us would die in the wilderness. It would be the new generation--born to the harshness of the wilderness and hungry for freedom--that would march across the Jordan River.Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote:The Torah had a choice here: it could use the word amar for "spoke" or it could use the word daber. The rabbis of the ancient Midrash Sifre Devarim note that every place the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] uses the verb daber indicates harshness or rebuke, whereas the Hebrew word amar conveys a sense of praise. In the opening lines of Devarim, the Torah uses the word daber. Why? Why did Moses speak harshly to the Hebrews as they gathered on the border of the Promised Land?
Because his final speech, the culmination of his long life of service to them and to God, consisted of chastisement, reminding them that they fell far short of the sacred standards embodied in the Torah and Jewish tradition.
But with all due respect to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher)--well, was this the best time for chastisement? Is this the best way to send people off to conquer the land across the Jordan? Some words of encouragement and praise may well have been appreciated.
Ok, ok. I'm not positing that Deuteronomy is giving us historical footage. It's a work that seems quite determined to make certain theological points. And it was no doubt written long after Moses's day (assuming Moses existed). Moses giving these final words is likely just a literary conceit.
But while I enjoy learning about biblical scholarship, there's something to be said for reading the Torah holistically--for taking it as a whole in its final form. Yes, we can and should remain conscious of the fact that different authors, with different points of view, contributed to it at different times. But we can nonetheless focus on the final product.
And that final product shows us Moses chastising the whole people Israel as they prepare to cross the Jordan.
In a way, I get it. Moses has fought the good fight. He's been leading (and putting up with) this people for more than 40 years. He stood up to Pharaoh. He stood up to HaShem Himself. Now he's buried a whole generation, including his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam. He's old, he's tired and if he wants to chew us out and remind us how much growing up we have to do--well, who's more entitled?
We know already that Moses himself won't enter Zion. There was an infamous incident, back in Parsha Chukat (Numbers 19:1--22:1) where Moses lost his temper. HaShem had commanded Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water--Moses ending striking the rock instead. It doesn't read like that big a deal . . . especially considering that Miriam had just died and, well, who knows where Moses' head was? Surely the man was entitled to some anger while he was grieving? (Or entitled to misspeak, if that was part of the problem?)
And yet the fact that Moses struck that rock is the reason that HaShem bars him from entering Zion. Moses knows from that moment on that he'll never enter the Promised Land.
In the Torah study at my synagogue, our rabbi drew a link between Moses's anger in striking the rock and Moses's harsh words to the people as they prepared to cross the Jordan. The moment of striking the rock may have been one incident in a larger pattern--maybe Moses, however high in esteem we hold him (and we hold no human higher), had grown too impatient to lead the people into Zion. Maybe that's one of the reasons that Moses had to die on the east side of the Jordan, and Joshua had to lead the people forward.
At the end of Deuteronomy--lots of parshas from now--when the harsh words are through, HaShem brings Moses up to mount Nebo and shows him the whole land before he dies. In fact, according to a midrash,** HaShem showed Moses not only the land, but how the entire history of the land and the people Israel would unfold. Moses died knowing what he had helped accomplish, even though he never set foot in the land himself.
So there's a special poignancy, I think, to the Torah's choice of the word daber--the fact that Moses rebuked us rather than encouraged us may be linked to the anger and frustration that drove him to strike that rock. And that, in turn, may be part of the reason he had to pass the torch to Joshua. But while we're working our way through this lengthy and sometimes scathing rebuke in the weeks to come, I like to remember that Moses had a glimpse of our future as a people--and I like to think that he knew, before he died, that however costly his anger and his rebuke was, his words would not be wasted.
I like to think that, in the end, he knew that we'd still be reading them--and learning from them and grappling with them--today.
* HaShem is a way of referring to God in the Jewish tradition--it literally means 'the Name.'
**Midrash (the proper plural is midrashim) are teachings and stories that fill in some of the blanks in the Torah or expand on the Torah. I like to call midrash the rabbinical fan fiction of the Torah.