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לימוד תורה

Parshat Devarim – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald

This Shabbat we will begin the Book of Devarim – the Mishneh Torah ("review of the Torah") and the Book of Reproof. In learning our parsha we will examine the strategy of public criticism whose purpose is to improve the future, as well as how to direct communal processes of learning from the past, making amends and improving.
The Book of Devarim describes the event of the admonishment of Am Israel in the Plains of Moav, at the entrance of the Land of Israel just before entering the Land, at the end of Moshe Rabbenu's term as the leader of Am Israel. At this moment, Moshe Rabbenu reviews the Torah before the nation and "reprimands" them. It has been asked: why is this repetition necessary? And why does the Torah now describe some of the events and the mitzvot differently? And why were some of the events and mitzvot repeated and others not? On the verse "These are the words that Moshe spoke" the Midrash (Sifrei, Devarim 1:1) asks: Did Moshe only prophesize these things (which are mentioned in the Book of Devarim)?! Didin't he write the entire Torah (including what is not repeated in Sefer Devarim)? We see that the Torah says "And Moshe wrote this entire Torah," so what does the Torah mean by "These are the words that Moshe spoke"? The answer is: these were words of reproof. In the Book of Devarim, the Mishneh Torah, Moshe repeated only the words of rebuke and this is the purpose of this event and the Sefer, to "reprimand" Israel. (Sifrei): "Across the Jordan" teaches that he rebuked them for what they did on the other side of the Jordan. "In the desert" – he rebuked them for what they did in the desert. "In the plains of Moav" – for what they did in the plains of Moav. "Across from Suf" – for what they did on Yam Suf (the Red Sea) - that they were defiant and turned their backs on Moshe and went back three "stations".
In contradiction to its general usage, the term "reproof" doesn't mean "lecturing" in the simple sense; not a leader hurling accusations and "striking" his flock with his words. To the contrary, this is constructive and bold public criticism coming from a leader who doesn't try to "gloss over" reality and create an ideology out of failures. Genuine criticism reflects a proportional outlook on deficiencies and doesn't intensify them. Moshe Rabbenu's criticism penetrates to the depths of the deficiencies and their roots. It isn't motivated, G-d forbid, by self-righteous perfectionism. To the contrary, its purpose is to learn lessons from the failures of the past – in order to create a "lever" to rectify in the future. As the Midrash says (Devarim Rabbah 1:2): "These are the words" corresponds to what is written (Mishlei 28:23): (He who) rebukes a man after Me will find grace more than one with a slick tongue. Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina: 'He who rebukes' – this is Moshe, 'a man' – these are Israel. What is 'after Me'? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: In order to bring the after Me. And the "Etz Yosef" interprets: "To direct them after My service…to merit Israel to go after G-d."
From this we can understand that the reason for the differences between the wordings in Sefer Devarim and the other Books of the Chumash reflect two viewpoints: In the other Books, those episodes, each one in its place, describe the events at the time they occurred. On the other hand, the wording in Sefer Devarim reflects the lessons to be learned from these events, for the future.
Moshe Rabbenu is in his last days as the leader of Am Israel, and he instructs the nation and gives it tools to help it conduct itself in the future, in Eretz Israel. He teaches it how to cope with the unique challenges that it will face in Eretz Israel – "To merit Israel to go after G-d." For this he has to initiate a process of amending the shortcomings that arose in the conduct of Am Israel in the desert and still weren't completely resolved.
As difficult as it is for an individual to change his habits and behavior, it is exponentially more difficult for a community. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbenu teaches us an eye-opening lesson in enlisting the nation to the process of repairing and improving. The first condition is the willingness of the leadership to criticize, with courage and integrity, the faulty conduct of the public and its institutions, without fearing that this will be interpreted as its own failure. The second condition is the fostering of a relationship between the leader and the nation which will be conducive to working together on a process of improvement, (Sifrei): "Speak with all of Israel" shows that they all needed reproof and were capable of coping with the reproof (to repair what was necessary). The third condition is to work diligently to internalize the lessons.
This process is supposed to prepare the nation for the two main challenges it will have to deal with in the Land of Israel: the spiritual challenge which will arise from contact with the idol worship of the Canaanite nations. And the military challenge which will result from the difficulty in conquering the land. All of these reflect Moshe Rabbenu's concern and sense of responsibility for the anticipated future of Am Israel as it enters Eretz Israel, in spite of the fact that this will happen when Moshe will no longer be the leader of Am Israel, and the nation will then not be his responsibility.

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