Reproof Refines a Person

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds; between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-zahav”

(Devarim 1:1)

Chumash Devarim is called משנה תורה (Mishneh Torah, lit. Repetition of the Torah) (see Chulin 63b). In this sefer, Moshe repeated to Bnei Yisrael all the mitzvot he had received up until then (see Rashi, Sanhedrin 56b). This sefer also contains the rebuke of Moshe to the nation before they entered Eretz Yisrael. Rashi explains (Devarim 1:1), that Moshe mentioned Bnei Yisrael’s sins indirectly, by referring to the places where they committed these sins and angered Hashem. Bnei Yisrael must learn the lesson not to repeat these sins, but in order to protect their dignity, their sins are merely hinted at by Moshe, and are not described at length.

There are two types of rebuke. One is learned from the pasuk (Vayikra 19:17), “You shall reprove your fellow.” It refers to the rebuke offered when one observes his fellow Jew sinning. And the second is the rebuke presented by the day of death. Chazal teach (Berachot 5a) that if a person feels an urge to sin, he should immediately think of the day he will die. This thought will defeat his Yetzer Hara and help him avoid sinning. Moshe rebuked his people before his death in order to remind them of the day of death, thereby keeping them on the straight and narrow.

Aside from the compelling question as to why Moshe saw fit to chastise the generation that had not committed the grave sins mentioned here, we face another difficulty. Why did Moshe begin the Mishneh Torah with rebuke at all? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to open with the review of the mitzvot? Wouldn’t that have been more appealing to Bnei Yisrael, making them all the more attentive to his words?

Moreover, why does Chumash Devarim, a synopsis of the Torah, not begin with the subject of Creation and the story of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt? These are the fundamentals of our nation, the secret of our survival.

In order for the Torah to exist among Bnei Yisrael, they must first make themselves into fitting vessels to contain it. Just as wine needs a suitable jug, and a home needs four supporting walls, so do Bnei Yisrael need the force of rebuke to mold them into a nation fitting to receive the Torah. Only afterward, can the Torah reside within them.

The people standing before Moshe were not the ones who had sinned in the Wilderness. Nevertheless, he felt it was worthwhile to offer them words of admonishment. He wished to impress upon them the understanding that one can contain the blessing of Torah only when he goes in the ways of Hashem. How, indeed, does a person succeed in doing Hashem’s will? By realizing that he has done wrong. This will encourage him to cleave to the way of goodness. When Bnei Yisrael accepted Moshe’s words of reproof, they became fortified in their Avodat Hashem. This strengthening brought them atonement for their fathers’ sins.

Rabbi Elimelech MiLizhensk, zy”a, author of the sefer Noam Elimelech, states the following (see Noach Elimelech, Likutei Shoshanah). Before a person stands in prayer to Hashem, he should do complete teshuvah. Otherwise, he will be like a servant who appears before his master in soiled garments. Aveirot are like stains on the neshamah. We begin the section of requests in Shemoneh Esrei with the supplication “Forgive us, our Father, for we have erred.” Once our sins are expunged, we can hope that our prayers will be accepted.

Regarding the question as to why Chumash Devarim does not begin with the accounts of Creation and Yetziat Mitzrayim, we might suggest the following. These concepts were so engrained in the national consciousness that there was no need to repeat them. Also, a major facet of the Exodus was that the people circumcised themselves in order to offer the korban Pesach. Since Am Yisrael did not perform brit milah during the forty years in the Wilderness, due to the dangers of the road, the korban Pesach was not offered during this time. Thus, there was no reason for Moshe to mention this aspect of their history.

As stated above, the generation listening to Moshe’s reproof was completely faultless. Nonetheless, Moshe’s striking words struck a note of admonition for all future generations. Torah can exist only in one who constantly seeks ways to improve his deeds and make himself a vessel worthy of containing it. But one who refuses to repair his wayward ways, performing mitzvot simply out of habit, is missing the point, just like a person who immerses in a mikveh to purify himself while clutching an insect, which is impure (see Alshich, Shir Hashirim 5:5).

In Summary

• Chumash Devarim is called Mishneh Torah. Moshe repeated all the mitzvot to Bnei Yisrael. He also reproved them for their sins, before they entered the Land. There are two types of chastisement. One is based on the pasuk, “You shall reprove your fellow.” And the other is the reproof of the day of death. Remembering that one will die will bring him to thoughts of teshuvah. Moshe employed this method of reproof by admonishing the nation close to his death.

• Why did Moshe first chastise the people, and only afterward repeat the mitzvot that he had taught them? This might have shamed and confused the nation, especially in light of the fact that they had not been the ones who had sinned. Furthermore, why aren’t Creation and the redemption from Egypt mentioned at the beginning of Chumash Devarim? These are the foundations of our nation!

• Moshe’s rebuke taught the nation that in order for the Torah to reside within a person, he must first make himself into a worthy vessel. Through words of admonishment, Am Yisrael would awaken to do teshuvah, atoning for their fathers’ sins.

• There was no need to begin with the account of Creation, for it was accepted unequivocally by the people. It did not need repetition. Moshe likewise saw no reason to repeat the account of Yetziat Mitzrayim, for a main aspect of the Exodus was offering the korban Pesach. Since they did not perform circumcision in the Wilderness, they were not permitted to bring this korban during the years they sojourned there. There was therefore no reason to mention the Exodus at this point.


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