Moses’s Final Words
As we approach the end of the Five Books of Moses with our celebration of Simhat Torah, we arrive at Parashat Vezot Haberakhah. Like his ancestor Jacob, Moses issues a moving blessing to each of the Tribes of Israel as he approaches his death. Having just read Parashat Ha’azinu, which contain many expressions of critique and rebuke, we are revived by Moses’s final words as he parts from the Nation that he led to freedom and to the borders of the Promised Land. How may we understand the juxtaposition of these words of rebuke and utterances of blessing? How do they give us a window into the leadership of Moses?
Israeli rabbi Rav Shmuel Avidor Hacohen (z”l) explains,
The time has come for our great leader, Moses, to part from the nation. At the beginning, Moses imparts words of harsh rebuke and severe warning to the people. He delineates their national failures over the course of forty years of wandering in the desert; he details the weaknesses of the nation; and he doesn’t ignore their stubborn shortcomings. He even mentions the severity of the punishments that will be meted out to the people if they abandon the straight path . . . But at the moment of his parting, he does not say his farewell with an air of anger and rage; rather, his parting words are a declaration of blessing. A true leader does not simply appease the masses. He tells them the truth, even if the truth is bitter. He exposes misdeeds, he cautions against corruption, and he issues warnings. Together with all of this, the leader should embrace his people with love and understanding. Moses leaves his people with “this blessing.” (Avidor Hacohen, Likrat Shabbat [in Hebrew], 218)
The moving exegesis of Rav Hacohen could not have come at a better time. With the United States moving toward a presidential election, and murmurings of a possible early election in Israel, we would all do well to remind ourselves of the substance of a solid leader. For a leader, as our commentator points out, is not one who simply paints a rosy picture of the future. A true leader is one who challenges his or her people to introspection. Difficult questions should be asked. The people should be challenged, morally and ethically. The nation should look backward, taking stock of past misdeeds, and then forward toward a more promising future. Both in the United States and Israel, our political leadership should embrace and internalize the wisdom of Rav Hacohen.
As we take refuge in the sukkah over the next few days, let us remind ourselves not to take refuge in complacency and delusion. Too often, elections are about painting unrealistic expectations. Let us all learn to be in touch with reality, continue the introspection that began with the month of Elul, and may we actively work toward creating a future of blessing.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.