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Posted on July 23, 2020 (5780) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel, in the wilderness, in the Aravah, opposite the Reed Sea, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Chatzeros and Di-Zahav.[2]

Seems like TMI. Far too many place names, even if Waze would respond to them. It is completely uncharacteristic of the Torah to provide so many locaters, particularly because no one is rushing to find the precise camp grounds today.

Rashi’s explanation (taken from the Sifrei) is that each of these place-names alludes to one of the darker episodes in the decades of wandering that were now coming to an end. As Moshe takes leave of his people, he wishes to remind them of their mistakes and sins. He wishes not to be obtuse, so he rebukes them only by alluding to those sins, rather than spelling them out.

This would work, but for the fact that Moshe has no qualms about rebuking them quite directly! Quite close by in the text[3] Moshe recapitulates in full detail the tragedy of sending the meraglim to spy out the Land. In Parshas Ekev, Moshe retells the entire story of the eigel,[4]and then continues with a laundry list of other sins and failures. He does this quite explicitly; no allusions employed. So why would he start off with allusions, rather than fully speak his mind?

We can explain Rashi if we accept one premise. Not every leader can legitimately rebuke the entire Nation. Only someone who has instructed them not only in Torah in general, but specifically in Torah she-b’al-peh/the Oral Law can assume that role.

Moshe Rabbenu, of course, is the master teacher of Torah. Yet until this point, he chiefly functioned to authoritatively convey Torah she-b’ksav/the Written Law to the people. He can – and does – rebuke them, but in a toned-down manner, by way of allusion.

That changes in the last weeks of his life, as he prepares to take leave of his flock. He revisits all parts of the Torah that might be confusing to the people. This is his last opportunity to see that they firmly understand the full implications, and the full depth, of what he has spent decades introducing to them. “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe began explaining this Torah.”[5] In other words, he shifts to a Torah she-b’al-peh model in fully exploring parts of the Torah that needed further development in people’s minds

That turned him into the chief rebbi of Klal Yisrael for Torah she-b’al-peh as well. Once that happened, he could utilize explicit, full-throated rebuke of the entire Jewish nation.

  1. Based on Meshivas Nafesh by R. Yochanan Luria (15th cent.)
  2. Devarim 1:1
  3. Devarim 1:22
  4. Devarim 9:12-22
  5. Devarim 1:5