“Moshe went – וילך משה – and spoke these words to all of Israel.”
My late Rosh Yeshivah, HaRav Yehudah Amital Tz’l, pointed out the contradiction between the midrash and the Ramban in understanding the context of these words. Moshe stands at the end of his days, for this is his final will and testament to his people.
The Midrash (Tanchumah) claims that based on these words Moshe stood and reproached his people. Yet Ramban sees it otherwise – rather than words of admonishment these are to be read as words of comfort and encouragement.
Furthermore, the juncture is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between the day of judgement Rosh Hashanah and the day of Atonement Yom Hakipurim. What can we glean from the words of Moshe Rabbeinu if it be reproach or positive encouragement?
I believe that within these verses the Torah teaches us a profound lesson, one which is not always apparent at a first glance.
One of my heroes, the Talmudic giant turned Chassidic Master R’ Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, writes:
“The leaders of each generation must posses a residue of that generation’s sins… That is why Moshe had to break the tablets following the sin of the golden calf and Eliyahu offered a sacrifice on a raised place on Mount Carmel after all the people served idols…” (Tzidkat HaTzadik 40:a)
Leaders not only have to lead their people but they must embrace and encompass the spiritual state of the people. Moshe had to break the tablets and by doing so change the relationship between Am Yisrael and Hashem forever but he did so because the people themselves rejected Hashem by worshiping the golden calf. Eliyahu had to mimic the idol worshiping nation he prophesied too, because they were at the time immersed in idolatry. Leaders, R’ Tzadok teaches, must in a real sense echo the spiritual standing of their people.
If they cannot do so they will not be able to influence or impact them in a meaningful way, simply put they cannot lead.
The very last verse in the Torah reads: “ולכל היד החזקה ולכל המורא הגדול אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל”
“And by all the strong hand and the awe-striking power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all of Israel” (Devarim 34:12).
Rashi teaches that each part of the above verse is taking us back to the greatest episodes in Moshe’s life and leadership. The strong hand refers to the bringing down of the Torah from heaven to earth. The awestriking power is a reference to the miracles performed in the desert. Yet the greatest achievement the Torah teaches that Moshe reached is to be understood from the end of the verse. “Before the eyes of all of Israel” teaches Rashi refers to the moment when Moshes heart was uplifted and raised to break the tablets before all of Israel.
Rashi goes on and even says that Hashem thanked Moshe for his deed of smashing the tablets and told him a Yeshar Koach (Well done).
Is that really the crowning moment of Moshes leadership? As he comes to the end of his tenure and his people stand on the cusp of entering into Eretz Yisrael Moshe stands before them and takes pride in the breaking of the tablets?
R Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari sets the scene of Am Yisrael remaining stood at the foot of the mountain. Rooted to their places each family stood in the same place wearing the same clothes awaiting the return of their master Moshe whom they had seen ascend the mountain enter the cloud and fog and awaited his decent eagerly. Yet they descend into chaos, they snap, they break, they cannot sustain this anticipation of spiritual greatness. Small groups begin to deviate in search of a less lofty path in serving G-d. They settle upon a medium, the golden calf, through which they can remember the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach they had offered up with great faith in Egypt prior to the completion of the exodus.
So, when Moshe descends with the tablets of stone in his hands written in the hand of G-d he realizes this is not the way forward. My people cannot sustain a relationship that is so lofty forever. So, he smashes the tablets, changes the game so to speak and relaunches a new path in Avodat Hashem one which can be reached and achieved by his people.
So, what is it to be at the start of our Parshah at this juncture in time? Condemnation or words of support?
I believe a good leader, and Moshe was the greatest leader of all, must be able to do both. Moshe is able to do so because he himself embodies the spiritual state of his people. He understands feels and senses where his people are and what they can be. They do not see him as set apart or as aloof or beyond them, rather they see him as the ideal, the representative of who they are and what they are, what they have become and can become.
This then is the greatness of Moshe that lies within us all “All of Israel” – we too can take admonishment, but can do so with the understanding that through this we can soar ever higher and closer to our Father in heaven.
Wishing us all Shabbat Shalom, Gemar Chatimah Tova, a good, sweet, healthy and happy year to all of Am Yisrael.