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Dvar Torah written by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 9th Av 5776, 13th August 2016
The book of Devarim could be called “The World According to Moshe” because this is where the aging leader finally lets down his hair, metaphorically speaking, and says what’s in his heart. If he were a contemporary cultural ikon, we could expect to read about all the problems he had with God, all the run-ins he had with this leader and all the times he wished he had never undertaken his mission back there in Midian. But this is Moshe, and even in his moments of self-exposure, what’s in his heart is a combination of what has happened in the past and what he hopes will happen in the future. In other words, even when he bares his soul, what we see is a leader, a caring father figure.
Moshe’s concern is what will happen in a few short weeks or months, when the people end their desert trek and enter the land. He fears for them because he knows their souls – even though the people before him are not the ones he lifted out of Egypt but their children – and he knows that their future will not be a bed of roses. Thorns maybe, but roses only sometimes.
What Moshe tries to do here, and in the rest of the book of Devarim, is to recount their history and reiterate the important lessons he wants them to remember. He wants them to remember justice and its administration at all times. It is a cornerstone of the people’s lives, of their faith, of their continued existence. Our leaders today should remember that. You don’t judge people by their wealth and you don’t take advantage of gerim – the converts or the strangers in your land. You treat them equally. Hopefully equally well.
As for the historical event that weighs most heavily on Moshe, it is without a doubt the spies, the twelve leaders who went out to reconnoiter the land and ten of whom came back with reports that turned the people into a mass of spineless jellyfish that just wanted to crawl back to servitude in Egypt.
Rabbi Ari Kahn has an incisive insight into the relations between Moshe and the people. Yes, he was the leader; yes, he gave them the faith they needed. In their first skirmish in the desert, against Amalek, it was he who held his arms up, directing the Israelites’ attention to God and thus instilling them with the faith to be victorious. And when his arms fell from heaviness, the people’s fortunes in the field also faltered.
But he was not alone there. Joshua and Chur were beside him, and when his arms became heavy, he sat and his two assistants held his arms up in faith (emunah) until the end of the day.
What this means is that the relations between Moshe and the people were two-way. Yes, the people needed him to lead and give them moral strength, but he also needed them to bolster his faith and his ability to lead.
We have to go back a little further in the story to see why this is so. When Moshe was being coerced into accepting the thankless task of becoming the leader of the people, he said, “But they will not believe me, they will not believe that I was sent by God.” In other words, from the years he had spent in Egypt, he knew instinctively that the people were not easy to win over, or keep won over.
And here, in the desert, almost 40 years out of Egypt, on the brink of entering the land, Moshe recounts and relives the great disappointment he suffered when the leaders of the people, the ones he had chosen to go and enter the land, came back with a report that undermined all his efforts.
This was a two way street that had been turned into a cul-de-sac, a dead end. This is the heaviness that now weighs on him as he retells the story to a generation who did not live through it, in the hope that they will learn the moral and not repeat the mistakes of their fathers.
At the same time, the monologues that Moshe delivers throughout the book are a tribute to his never-flagging interest in the people and in assuring their welfare in the future. Despite his years, he’s still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to prepare his people for the future.
This is an important message on the eve of Tish’a B’Av, the national day of mourning for two temples and countless atrocities perpetrated against our people. It’s a message our own leaders today should adopt: chastise what deserves to be punished, give hope for what can be in the future, and take care of the people now so that they will have both the ability and the desire to follow.