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The end is in sight, both Canaan and the end of Moshe’s life, and for the umpteenth time Moshe once again tries to impress on the Israelites the importance of following God’s commandments. He puts it in the simplest terms possible. I am giving you the choice between life and death, between following God or not following. Choose life.
He expends more energy telling the people how good it will be for them. Then it’s God’s turn. He tells Moshe: I know this people. I know what they’ll do. They are going to forsake me after you are gone. They are going to follow other gods. That’s just the way they are.
Then, after imparting leadership upon Joshua, Moshe comes back to the Levites and tells them to make copies of the Torah. Gather the people and read it to them because I know that after my death they will leave the path of good, and all sorts of bad things will happen to them.
How depressing. Moshe has been fighting the good fight for forty years. In his last few weeks of life, as we read the book of Devarim, we heard him exhorting the people time and again to follow God’s commandments, warning them, cajoling them, practically begging on hands and knees before them. And now, in the last sentences before the big poem, Haazinu, which is a final warning, Moshe admits failure. I know what you did last summer. I know what you’re going to do next chance you get.
We always read this parsha just before Rosh Hashana, the holiday marking a new beginning, wiping the slate clean, going our jolly way for another year. What do we hope and pray for? Forgiveness for our transgressions, patience and tolerance for our inability to do everything or to do it right, health, parnassa – making a living, safety for us and our loved ones, and maybe even success?
As far as Moshe is concerned, if the people adhere to the laws of God they will have it all. And what about Moshe? He knows he will not have the one thing he wanted – to enter the land. And now he also knows, because he has it from the Highest Source, that all his exhortations have been an exercise in futility. He’s the Sisyphus of the Bible!
We don’t read Moshe’s emotional response to this revelation. In general, the Torah does not deal with emotions. Deep down he probably expected backsliding to be the rule, but to hear it from He Who Knows All, that is crushing.
Yet Moshe carries on. His moments of doubt were in the past, but not now. Hard as it is for him to admit, what will be will be and he won’t be there to see or prevent it.
So, the question is: should God have revealed the people’s lack of observance in the future? Couldn’t He, by not saying anything, have given Moshe some hope (against hope) that his words might have actually done some good, so that Moshe would have gone to his rest feeling he had done some lasting good?
Or should we see this revelation as a coup de grace, a final blow of mercy? Read this way, God is saying, Look Moishe, if you went on leading them you would just have more heartaches, even worse than the ones you had in the desert. So be at peace. Know that you have done your utmost, and now it’s going to be someone else’s problem.
Would that quiet Moshe’s soul? Or would he, like an early-day Don Quijote mount his Rocinante and with Sancho Panza at his side, ride off to fight more windmills of disobedience by the nation?
From what we know of Moshe, that’s exactly what he would have done. That’s what he did. He kept on nudging them to obey God.
And what about us? What would we do? Fight the good fight or leave it for the next fellow? Each to his own.
Next Shabbat we celebrate Rosh Hashana. May we all rise to the occasion, and be granted a year of health – for everyone if at all possible! – a year of good deeds, of harmony within our families and within our country, of economic health for us, for the many here who have been affected by the corona, and for the country. And let us strive for a life that helps others, and promotes peace within and without.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova