Parshat Devarim: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27.
Sefer Devarim serves as Moshe’s final address to the Bnei Yisrael. Throughout, Moshe recounts events that defined the 40 years in the wilderness, including some which posed the greatest challenges. He recounted the ill-fated story of the spies, of the golden calf and referred to the multiple rebellions and uprisings that had occurred in the wilderness.
Why would Moshe spend the last weeks of his life addressing the entire nation, raising painful moments instead of positive ones? Rashi, in his commentary on the opening verse of this week’s parshah, says Moshe deliberately gathered all of Israel to hear his final address. He saw it as imperative that his message be heard by each individual directly from him.
Moshe feared that anyone missing his address would chide those who attended saying they should have rejoined and challenged Moshe’s reproach of the people. He feared that individuals who were not fully committed would erode the national mission and unity by introducing cynicism and doubt. Moshe wanted to engage critics directly rather than have them foment sedition insidiously.
Moshe’s concern was quite warranted. After all, this is what happened multiple times throughout the time in the wilderness. Each rebellion: the spies, Korach and other defiant movements, even those which were seemingly justified in some way, were founded and sustained by detractors and critics.
In his final address, Moshe wanted to emphasize that the nation’s success or failure hinged on one determining factor: attitude. Each incident in the wilderness involved individuals who lacked perspective. They focused on flaws and faults when they should have expressed fealty to God and gratitude for their good fortune; they were on their way to a promised land; they had sustenance in the manna and protection from the elements and enemies through God and the Clouds of Glory.
Acrimony and ungratefulness eroded faith and trust and poisoned exuberance, excitement and optimism. Moshe was not about to let that happen after his passing. He wanted to warn the people of the foe they would face, perhaps more daunting than all others — themselves.
Moshe wanted to make sure that the Bnei Yisrael understood how their greatest calamities could have been averted. He wanted to arm each person, each family and each tribe with the awareness to recognize subversive individuals and movements and the power to intervene. He wanted to leave them with a weapon more powerful than a spear or sword; he wanted to leave them with an attitude of gratitude and optimism, and the power of faith — something that continues to sustain us as a people even today.
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen is head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.