This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Shayna Hulkower
This week marks the beginning of the end of the chumash, the 'Five Books of Moshe' that makes up the Torah read on a yearly basis. Devarim, the name of this week's parsha and the who sefer or book, is not dissimilar to chapters we would find at the end of a large text book or at the end of an important lesson given. It is a review of sorts, a repetition of what Moshe taught the Jewish people over the previous 40 years in the desert, and an emphasis on the nuances that could be easy to overlook. Moshe also uses it as an opportunity to chastise the Jewish Nation for things they did wrong while wandering the desert (you may recall the only reason the Jews had to stay in the desert for 40 years was because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Because some of them flipped out that Moshe was late coming back, so they built a new 'leader', and the generation was punished to wander in the desert until those who caused the sin to happen died out. This is an important reminder not to overreact when someone is late!). Over the course of the entire book, and especially in this chapter, we are given many reminders of our past transgressions in order to practice what is called in the corporate world 'lessons learned' and change our behavior for the better.
One of the first things he talks about is the false report the spies brought back that so upset the people and ultimately doomed the day to be one of actual heartache for the Jewish people over the next several thousand years. The sage of Lithuania, the Vilna Gaon, says there is a very important lesson to learn from this incident. There is a story told where someone came to the Gaon with a great idea and was so enthusiastic about it, however the Gaon said no and sent him away. A few days later the man returned, much more subdued in his approach and this time the Vilna Gaon said it was a great idea. Why the change of heart? He cited this incident in the desert - the whole story with the spies started off and ended with unbridled enthusiasm and uncontrolled excitement. This caused many problems, including people not thinking properly about why they sent out the spies, as well as to jump to ridiculous conclusions when the spies came back with their report. Altogether this caused many problems for the Jewish people. Therefore, the Vilna Gaon teaches, we are to learn from this incident not to go forward with a plan anyone is too excited about because it is easy to get carried away and miss the important aspects about the plan.
It is noteworthy that these rebukes of their behavior are left until the end of the book. One idea as to why Moshe waited so long, until right before his death actually, is that he waited until enough time had passed after these incidents so that the people were calm and clearheaded again. Anyone who has been involved in a heated argument can appreciate the fact that it is not productive to try and resolve an issue in the midst of the moment when tempers are high. Rather, often the best strategy is to come back after things have cooled down and try to discuss things more rationally. This is one aspect of what Moshe was trying to accomplish. There would be no point in trying to point out the inappropriate behavior in the middle of it, so he waited until enough time had passed that the people could be clear headed and really appreciate the constructive criticism he was offering and be capable to internalize it and change. At the same time waiting until before his death was similarly strategic. We learn from the end of the book of Bereshit, when Yaakov gives his sons blessings before he dies, he also chastises them for their bad behavior. He waiting until this point because people are more likely to hear painful criticism of their behaviors when they know the person giving it won't be around much longer. Also, the death of a loved one is often a point in time when a person reflects upon their own life and how they can change to emulate the person who passed away, so by waiting until before his death Moshe was likely hoping that his words will have their greatest impact.
This book is a great reminder that it's important to remember times we behaved poorly in order to change our behavior for the better - (or to always be on our best behavior so we don't need reminders!).