By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
September 8, 2001
At the end of 40 years of leadership, Moshe addresses the people of Israel. He has reviewed their history together and taught them many
mitzvot. He has promised them Hashem's bounteous reward if they obey and admonished them with Hashem's dire punishment if they rebel. Then, Moshe prepares them to renew their covenant with Hashem:
(1) And Moshe called to all Israel and said to them, "You have seen all that Hashem did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land: (2) the great trials that your eyes have seen, the signs and those great miracles. (3) Yet Hashem has not given you the heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear until this day. (4) And I led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes did not become worn from upon you and your shoe did not become worn out from your foot. (5) Bread you did not eat, nor did you drink wine and strong drink, so that you shall know that I Hashem am your G-d. (6) And you came to this place, and Sichon the king of Cheshbon and Og king of the Bashan came out against us to battle, and we defeated them. (7) And we took their land, and we gave it as an inheritance to the Reuvenites and to the Gadites and to half the tribe of the Menashites. (8) And you shall keep the words of this covenant, and you will do them, so that you may prosper in all that you do" (Devarim ch. 29).
What is Moshe's intention by this brief repetition of the events of the past forty years?
First, Moshe focuses on the people's utter dependence upon Hashem during the majority of those forty years: Hashem wrought the miracles that punished Egypt and freed them from servitude; Hashem led them through the perils of the wilderness; Hashem provided them with food and drink, clothing and protection. This period may be said to parallel the early years of a person's life, when he relies on his parents for all his needs. Yet, throughout all that time - like an adolescent who cannot admit his own neediness -
Hashem has not given you the heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear until this day.
This, as the Maharal (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1525-1609) explains in Gur Aryeh, cannot refer to an inherent inability to comprehend. Rather, in Rashi's words, Moshe is arguing that the people needed to mature, in order "to recognize the kindness of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to be devoted to Him" (29:3).
This maturity developed when the people "turned forty."
Partially, Moshe's point is based on the natural development that occurs over the course of time. In addition, the people have demonstrated their maturity through independent action: They fought against Sichon and Og, they conquered their lands and apportioned them to the two-and-a-half tribes. The shift in the people's role is striking: in verses 1-5 the people are passive recipients, and in verses 6-7 the people are initiators.
This growth is reminiscent of the words of Pirkei Avot (5:25):
"At twenty (years old), to pursue; at thirty, for strength; at forty, for understanding."
Only now can the people see Hashem's wisdom in allowing them to grow up in the wilderness. This, argues the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 24, 32; Epistle on the Revival of the Dead, 9), was Hashem's intention from the start: since the slave-people lacked the toughness, experience, maturity and autonomy to face war in Canaan,
G-d did not lead them by the road of the land of the Philistines, which was close (Shemot 13:17).
Not only had they not been ready for entry into the land forty years ago; they were not even able to appreciate that they had not been ready until forty years had passed.
Only in retrospect do they now have "the heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear."
But the passage of time, and initiative, were not sufficient, it would seem, "until this day." Rashi (whose apparent source is Yalkut Shimoni, 938) adds:
I heard that this was the same day that Moshe gave the Torah scroll to the Levites, as is written in the portion of Vayelech: "And he gave it to the priests, the descendants of Levi" (31:9). All of Israel came before Moshe and said to him: "Moshe our Teacher, we, too, stood at Sinai and we accepted the Torah and it was given to us. Why are you appointing the members of your tribe [Levi] over it? At some future time they will say to us, 'Not to you was it given, to us was it given.'" Moshe rejoiced over the matter, and he therefore said to them "This day you have become a people, etc." (27:9):
Today I have understood that you are devoted to and desire the Omnipresent One (29:3).
The people want to forestall a future monopoly on the Torah by the Levites, and to lay claim to their part in the Torah.
But, asks Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (1848-1902), how do they show their devotion to Hashem? Perhaps they are only pursuing their honor? And, if this event is relevant to Vayelech, why does Rashi mention it here, after the Tochecha (the frightful admonitions of chapter 28)?
He answers with reference to something that can be observed in many a synagogue: When someone insists on receiving an aliya, we might surmise that he is looking for personal honor. But, if he insists just as forcefully even though the aliya is for the Tochecha, then it is clear that he loves the Torah. Similarly, when Moshe hears the people's claim expressed after the Tochecha, he understands that they are truly devoted to Hashem.
Maturity comes to a people, as it does to an individual, with time and responsibility, but mostly by transcending the self to serve Hashem.