“The Final Rebuke”


With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin to read the fifth and final book of the Torah.

The book of Deuteronomy is known in rabbinic literature as מִשְׁנֶה תוֹרָה, Mishneh Torah, which means, a repetition or review of the Torah. During the last five weeks of Moses’ life, the fortieth year after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses conveys his final teachings to the People of Israel.

Moses was concerned that once the people enter the “Promised Land,” the new generation would succumb to the powerful influences and temptations of the local Canaanite inhabitants. He reasoned that if the previous generation of Israelites, the parents, could continually sin even though they were surrounded by constant miracles, what would happen to the new generation who were confronted by the blandishments of the idolatrous Canaanite nations?

Moses therefore, gently rebuked the new generation to prepare the people for the new reality. According to Rashi, Moses offered his rebuke in an indirect and mild manner, rather than forcefully.

The book of Deuteronomy opens with the following prologue (Deuteronomy 1:1): אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בַּמִּדְבָּר, בָּעֲרָבָה, מוֹל סוּף, בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב, These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the opposite side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.

Rather than forcefully reprove the people for the terrible sins they had committed as they wandered in the wilderness, Moses alludes to the sins obliquely by referring to the various places where these sins were committed: בַּמִּדְבָּר, in the Wilderness, where the people complained that they had been led into a desert to starve (Exodus 16:1-3); בָּעֲרָבָה, in the Arabah. Rashi and Onkelos  explain that this refers to the plain where many Israelites were seduced by the Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-9); מוֹל סוּף, opposite the Sea of Reeds, where the Israelites, who were being chased by the Egyptians at the sea, sarcastically complained: “Were there no graves in Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). Even when they emerged from the sea, the people cried because they were certain that the Egyptians had escaped drowning and were waiting for them on the other side of the sea; בֵּין פָּארָן, between Paran, which is where the spies were sent from in the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 13:1-15); וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן, between Tophel and Laban. Rashi claims that these places are not mentioned anywhere in Scripture, rather they are allusions to complaints about the manna (Numbers 21:5). Tophel also refers to the tasteless bread–-the manna (Numbers 11:6); וַחֲצֵרֹת, Hazeroth is either the location where Korach’s rebellion took place or where Miriam was stricken for slandering Moses (Numbers 12:1-16); and finally, דִי זָהָב, the Jews were blessed with an abundance of gold (Zahav) when they left Egypt, but instead used this gift to fashion the Golden Calf.

The Torah, in Leviticus 19:17, declares, הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ, you shall surely rebuke your brother. The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 31a, explains that the repetition in the verse is intended to underscore that one should rebuke his brother repeatedly until he repents. The verse concludes with, וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא, and you shall not bear sin because of him. The sages declare that this implies that those who have an opportunity to prevent their friends and neighbors from sinning and fail to do so, commit an unfortunate sin of omission, and must assume at least partial responsibility for the misdeeds they could have prevented. As an example, the Talmud in Shabbat 54b reports that a cow, belonging to Rab Elazar ben Azaria’s neighbor, used to go out on Shabbat wearing a forbidden type of strap. Because he never tried to correct his neighbor’s improper behavior, the cow was known as “Reb Elazar’s cow.”

The regulations regarding rebuke require that one who rebukes a neighbor/friend must do so in a kind and gentle manner with no ulterior motive, and with only the clear intention to help the transgressors mend their ways.

One must not shame a sinner in public without first having tried to rebuke the sinner in private. One who unnecessarily shames or humiliates another person in public, forfeits his share in the World to Come. That is why the rabbis say that Moses did not mention the sinful acts themselves, but rather alluded to them obliquely by mentioning the locations where the sins occurred.

The Kedushat Levi notes that the above-cited verse, contains a seemingly extra phrase, אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, to underscore that Moses spoke to all of Israel. He says that this comes to teach that Moses offered the words of reproof only when all the people were united, so that no one could blame their friend or neighbor and say that Moses was speaking only to certain individuals and not to all of them. It is interesting to note, says the Kedushat Levi, that when Moses speaks to the people, he offers words of rebuke. However, when Moses speaks to G-d, he always tries to defend the Jewish people, and speak favorably about his beloved nation.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni says that the phrase, “all of Israel,” teaches that all of the People of Israel were not only worthy of receiving rebuke, but were also capable of hearing the rebuke and taking it to heart.

The Talmud, in Yevamot 65b, states that just as it is a mitzvah for a person to speak only words that can be understood, so is it a mitzvah for a person to refrain from saying things that cannot be heard or understood. This is what the Yalkut Shimoni means when it said that the people were able to “tolerate” the reproof–that they heard it, accepted it, and used it to mend their ways and attitudes.

The medieval commentator, Recanati cites the dictum found in Talmud Sanhedrin 27b, כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה, that all of Israel is responsible, and acts as surety, for one another. It was this deep concern for one another, declares the Recanati, which has enabled the Jews to survive throughout the ages.

A Jew who sins becomes a weak link in the chain of Jewish posterity. Giving rebuke to sinners can often help repair that link. It may also help to strengthen the commitment of those who give rebuke, because they must now live up to the ideal of what they expect of others.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, July 21st and continues through Sunday night, July 22nd, 2018. Have a meaningful fast.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah, the first 27 verses of which are read as the haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av).  Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) that is recited on the night of Tisha b’av. The 12th verse of parashat Devarim begins with the word “Eicha” and that verse is also recited to the tune of Eicha. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the  L’cha Dodi hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha b’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha b’av.