Two Important Lessons from Moshe’s Final Address

And at Taveyrah and at Masah and at Kivrot HaTa’avah you evoked Hashem’s anger. And when Hashem sent you from Kadesh Barneya saying, “Ascend and possess the land that I have given to you.” And you rejected the word of Hashem and you did not believe Him and obey His voice. (Sefer Devarim 9:22-23)

1. Moshe’s enumeration of the nation’s sins in the wilderness
In the above passages Moshe reviews various instances in which Bnai Yisrael complained against Hashem or rebelled against His commands. He gives special attention to the incident of the spies. In this incident Hashem instructed the nation to initiate its conquest of the land. However, Bnai Yisrael was intimidated by the strength of the nations in possession of the land and refused to follow Moshe. Moshe explains that by refusing to follow him the people demonstrated a lack of faith in Hashem.

Much of Moshe’s final address is composed of rebuke and warning. The inclusion of a brief review of these events is not surprising. However, the placement of this review at this specific point in his address is very odd. A few passages earlier Moshe begins to review the incident of the Egel – the Golden Calf. He explains that in response to this sin he ascended Mount Sinai and remained there for forty days and nights. During this period he beseeched Hashem to spare Bnai Yisrael and not immediately destroy the nation. Moshe then delivers the message in the above passages; he reviews other events in which the nation rebelled against or lacked faith in Hashem. He then returns to the incident of the Egel. He provides a more detailed description of his petitions before Hashem on behalf of the nation. Why does Moshe interrupt his description of the sin of the Egel and its aftermath with a review of these other sins and failures of the nation?

You should know that it is not because of you righteousness that Hashem gives to you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked nation. (Sefer Devarim 9:6)

2. Moshe’s introduction: You are a stiff-necked nation
Based on the above passage Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains the interruption. Sforno explains that Moshe began this portion of his address by explaining to Bnai Yisrael that it has not earned the right to possess the Land of Israel because of its righteousness. Instead, Bnai Yisrael will be granted possession of the land for two reasons. First, Hashem will dispossess the nations that are now in the land as punishment for their wickedness. Second, Bnai Yisrael has been selected to be the vehicle for dispossessing these wicked nations in order to fulfill the covenant with the Patriarchs – that their descendants will possess the land. Moshe emphasizes in the above passage that in no manner has this generation’s righteousness earned it the right to possess the land. This generation has been stiff-necked![1]

What is the meaning of being stiff-necked? Sforno explains that one who is stiff-necked is completely controlled by his desires or primitive notions. He does not abandon the pursuit of these desires or flawed notions in response to evidence that they lead to negative outcomes or punishment. He cannot turn away from his fixation on these desires and notions in order to objectively assess the outcomes of pursuing them. In other words the person continues to engage in the same self-destructive behaviors even after these behaviors have resulted in personal disappointment, suffering, and other terrible consequences. [2]

Through identifying Moshe’s message in this portion of his address, Sforno explains the sequence in the passages. Moshe reviews the incident of the Egel. He then continues by describing subsequent sins of the nation. Moshe describes these events in order to demonstrate his initial point. The nation is stiff-necked. They sinned through creating and worshiping the Egel. They narrowly escaped total destruction. However, this powerful experience did not evoke a reassessment of their behaviors and notions. Instead, soon after Moshe rescued them from Hashem’s wrath, they resumed their provocations.[3]

3. Moshe’s message in describing his petition to Hashem after the Egel
After describing the sins that the nation committed after the incident of the Egel, Moshe returns to the incident and describes his petition to Hashem. Sforno does not explicitly explain Moshe’s reason for returning to the sin of the Egel. However, his description of Moshe’s objectives provides an obvious explanation. Moshe wishes to impress upon the nation that they will not possess the land as a consequence of their own righteousness. Through his description of his petition Moshe provides evidence of this assertion.

Moshe secured Hashem’s agreement to spare the nation through two appeals. First, he evoked the covenant that Hashem had made with the Patriarchs – that their descendents would take possession of the Land of Israel. Second, he asked Hashem to not undermine the demonstration of His omnipotence that had emerged from His redemption of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. If He now destroyed Bnai Yisrael, the nations of the world would conclude that Hashem is not actually omnipotent and that He destroyed Bnai Yisrael rather than allowing the nation to be destroyed by the mighty nations occupying the Land of Israel.

Moshe’s point in reviewing his appeals is that the nation now stood poised to conquer the Land of Israel because of his petition on its behalf. This petition implicitly acknowledged that the generation was unworthy of this great opportunity. Moshe had made no effort to minimize the nation’s sin or to excuse it. Instead, his appeal focused on issues that are essentially extraneous to the generation and not dependent on its merits. He focused on the covenant with the Patriarchs and the importance of not undermining the recent demonstration of Hashem’s omnipotence. In short, Bnai Yisrael stands ready to conquer the land because of arguments that Moshe made on its behalf that did not rely upon the nation’s merit.

4. Moshe’s message: learn from one’s mistakes
Moshe’s message was directed to the generation that would enter the Land of Israel. However, his description of the nation as stiff-necked is relevant to all generations and individuals. Every person will make mistakes. Realistically, we can strive to reduce our errors and misguided behaviors but we cannot eliminate them. There is no shame in admitting error. This is merely an acknowledging our own humanity. However, a person engaged in personal growth is distinguished from one who is stiff-necked by his capacity to accept responsibility for errors and wrongdoing and to learn from the consequences.

And Bnai Yisrael traveled from Be’erot Bnai Yaakan to Moserah. Aharon died there and was buried there. And Elazar his son was appointed Kohen in his place. At that time Hashem separated the tribe of Leyve to carry the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem and to stand before Hashem to serve Him and to bless (the nation) in his name to this very day. (Sefer Devarim 10:6-7)

5. Moshe recounts some of the stages of the nation’s journey through the wilderness
In the midst of his address Moshe reviews some of the late stages of Bnai Yisrael’s journey through the wilderness. He focuses on those stages immediately preceding the death of Aharon. He then explains that at “that time” Hashem appointed Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve – to serve Him. It seems that Moshe is explaining that this appointment took place subsequent to Aharon’s death. However, the Torah previously explained that Shevet Leyve was appointed to its position in the aftermath of the sin of the Egel.

Rashi explains that the above passages can be understood when viewed in their context. Moshe concluded his discussion of the sin of the Egel by describing his final ascent of Mount Sinai and his descent with the second set of Luchot – Tablets of the Decalogue. The above passages are the continuation of his address. Rashi explains that the enumeration of the stages is a short digression. Moshe returns to and completes his discussion of the aftermath of the Egel by noting that at “at that time” – in the aftermath of the Egel – Shevet Leyve was appointed as Hashem’s servants.[4] This leaves an obvious question: Why did Moshe digress into his enumeration of the stages of Bnai Yisrael’s journey?

6. The Egel and Shevet Leyve’s appointment
Rashi offers multiple explanations. One of his explanations asserts a relationship between the digression and the appointment of Shevet Leyve. Shevet Leyve was appointed in response to its role in opposing the sin of the Egel. It was the only tribe that did not participate in the creation or worship of the Egel. Furthermore, Shevet Leyve joined Moshe in identifying and punishing the sinners. The appointment of Shevet Leyve was a response to the Shevet’s uncompromising devotion to Hashem.

Rashi explains that Moshe – in his review of the stages of Bnai Yisrael’s journey – is alluding to another incident in which Shevet Leyve played an important role. After Aharon’s death, the clouds of Hashem’s glory that had accompanied Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness departed. The disappearance of the clouds encouraged the King of Arad to attack Bnai Yisrael. This attack initiated a panic among the people and resulted in a popular movement to return to Egypt. The nation actually began to retrace the recent stages of its journey through the wilderness. At Moserah, Shevet Leyve mounted an opposition to the nation’s retreat. A battle ensued. Both sides endured casualties but Shevet Leyve succeeded in arresting the retreat and returning the nation to its journey to the Land of Israel.[5],[6]

Rashi explains that Moshe alludes to this incident at this point because it provides another example of the attitude Shevet Leyve’s unique attitude. It is because of this attitude that this shevet was selected as Hashem’s servants.[7]

7. Shevet Leyve’s moral superiority: Love of Hashem before fraternal love
Rashi’s comments are difficult to understand. He acknowledges that Shevet Leyve was awarded its special status as a reward for its role in opposing the creation and worship of the Egel. Yet, he asserts that Moshe felt compelled to provide a second example of this character. Why is this second example required? Furthermore, this second demonstration of character occurred long after the incident of the Egel and Shevet Leyve’s appointment. If Moshe felt it necessary to provide this second example of Shevet Leyve’s character why not mention the two incidents in chronological order? First, Moshe should have reviewed the appointment of Shevet Leyve in response to its opposition to the Egel, and then, mentioned the Shevet’s stand against the movement to return to Egypt.

Shevet Leyve’s opposition to the Egel demonstrated two characteristics. First, it demonstrated an uncompromising commitment to serving Hashem alone and a complete rejection of idolatry. Second, this commitment was expressed not only in their refusal to join in worship of the Egel, it was also communicated by the Shevet’s response to Moshe’s call to join him in identifying and punishing the sinners. This demonstrated the placement of commitment to Hashem above the Shevet’s fraternal relationship with the rest of Bnai Yisrael.

It seems that according to Rashi, Moshe wished to stress that Shevet Leyve was not selected to serve as Hashem’s servants merely because its members refused to participate in the worship of the Egel. Instead, their selection was in response to their demonstration of clear priorities. They placed their commitment to Hashem above their fraternal love for Bnai Yisrael. Moshe expressed this message by alluding to Shevet Leyve’s battle with the other tribes to prevent a return to Egypt. This served as a prelude to Moshe’s description of Shevet Leyve’s appointment. It communicated that their selection was not a result of a vague, theoretical, untested commitment. It was a response to a commitment that was so strong and sincere that it took precedence over fraternal love.

Rashi’s comments contain an important message. In order to be Hashem’s servant one can have no other master or competing commitment. Even love for one’s brother is secondary to one’s duty to Hashem. In abstract, this sound reasonable and even inevitable. However, in practice it is very unusual for one to place commitment to any truth, ethic or ideal before a fraternal loyalty. Few individuals are willing to oppose their peers. Barely anyone would expose a peer to punishment for a wrongdoing.[8] Yet, Moshe’s message is that loyalty to our friends and even our family is not the ultimate value. Love of Hashem and commitment to His Torah are paramount.

1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 9:4-6.

2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 9:6.

3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 9:7 and 9:22.

4. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 9:8.

5. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 9:6-7.

6. The skeptic may note that it is odd that such an important incident is not mentioned in Sefer BeMidbar. However, Rashi’s position is that not every failing of the nation in the course of its forty years in the wilderness is included in Sefer BeMidbar’s narrative. In fact, the Torah reveals very little regarding the period between the second and fortieth year. Probably, this is not because the nation committed no further sins during these years. Instead, the events of these intervening years are not relevant to the overall message of the narrative and are therefore omitted. Rashi finds it very plausible that an important incident may be known to us through tradition and yet not be included in the Sefer BeMidbar narrative.

7. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 9:8.

8. Occasionally, we read of whistleblowers exposing dishonest, illegal, or unsafe practices in their organizations. It seems to me that in very few of these cases does the whistleblower expose a peer. More often he exposes some member of the organization whose authority is greater than his own. This is because compromising a peer is viewed as immoral. Exposing a superior is considered courageous. However, ethically one has the same obligation to expose a peer for wrongdoing as a superior.