Parshas Devarim: The Art of Rebuke

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Devarim, the fifth book of Torah opens with the following words:

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶלכָּליִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּןבַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּיןפָּארָן וּבֵיןתֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹתוְדִי זָהָבthese are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite the Reed Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Chatzeros and Di Zahav (Devarim 1:1).  

Though it sounds like these are all places in the desert where the nation traveled, Rashi teaches us that each name alludes to a different sin of the Israelites in the desert.  Because Hashem had mercy on their dignity, Moshe here rebukes the nation by alluding to their sins, and not saying them outright. 

To what sins does the verse allude?

Arava refers to the sin of Ba’al Peor (see Bamidbar 25); Mol Suf alludes to their rebelling at the Sea of Reeds, when they complained “are there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert?”; Tofel and Lavan allude to their sins of slandering the manna; Paran alludes to the sin of the spies; and Chatzeros alludes to the rebellion of Korach.

What about וְדִי זָהָב, literally ‘more than enough gold’?  Rashi teaches: ודי זהב. הוֹכִיחָן עַל הָעֵגֶל שֶׁעָשׂוּ בִּשְׁבִיל רֹב זָהָב שֶׁהָיָה לָהֶםhe rebuked them over the calf that they made, because of the abundance of gold that they had (Rashi to Devarim 1:1).  

As the nation had an excess of gold that they collected, which washed ashore after the Egyptians, their horses, chariots and riders sunk in the Reed Sea (see Rashi to Shemos 15:22), it was this gold that they used to construct the golden calf, which led to the tragic sin of national idol worship.  

Rabbi Shalom Rosner teaches, “The Gemara (Brachos 32a) interprets the allusion of Di Zahav a bit differently: ‘Moshe said to Hashem: The riches you gave to Bnei Yisrael until they said ‘enough’ (די, dai) is what caused them to erect the golden (זָהָב) calf.’”

It seems from the Gemara that Moshe blames Hashem for the sin of the golden calf.  And yet, Rashi teaches us that this verse is tochacha, a rebuke by Moshe of the people, where he blames the nation for the sins!  Was it the nation’s fault, or was it G-d’s fault (keviyachol)?  How are we to understand this seeming contradiction?

Rabbi Rosner explains, “After hundreds of years of slavery, He took them out of Egypt with great miracles and gave them vast riches.  What can be expected of someone who becomes a millionaire overnight?  It is hard to deal with so much good fortune so quickly.  It is Your fault, Hashem, for having spoiled them!

“Rav Asher Weiss asks what was transpiring here.  Was Moshe Rabbeinu rebuking Am Yisrael, or was he directing the rebuke vis-a-vis the RS”O (keviyachol)?  Actually, it was both.  On the one hand, Moshe was giving the Bnei Yisrael mussar (chastisement), but at the same time, he was defending us.”  

It’s as if he was saying – Hashem, what did You expect of them?  Having been deprived of riches for hundreds of years, they simply could not properly handle the great wealth you gave them with the Exodus.

Rabbi Rosner points out that there is a very important lesson to be learned from this.  “Whenever we are trying to improve someone else, as a parent, as a teacher, as a friend, at the same time that we are putting them down, we have to be raising them up.  At the same time that we are accusing them of wrongdoing, we have to be excusing them for their sinful behavior.  As the Gemara (Sotah 47a) states: לְעוֹלָם תְּהֵא שְׂמֹאל דּוֹחָה וְיָמִין מְקָרֶבֶתalways (a person shall) push away with the left hand (be harsh in rebuke when necessary), and with the right hand, draw close and embrace.”

We must always display love for the child and/or talmid, and attempt in some way to defend their behavior, or see another angle of the transgression, even when rebuke is in order.   Moshe Rabbeinu is the messenger of Hashem and our messenger as well.  He is the go-between in both directions.  From Hashem’s point of view, Moshe was giving us mussar.  But from our point of view, he was defending us before Hashem.  

“May we take this lesson with us and carefully balance rebuking and defending our children and our students” (Shalom Rav, v.II, p.348-349).

“On one occasion, Rav Pam zt’l offered a homiletic interpretation of the saying: כבדהו וחשדהו, “Honor him but suspect him”.  Said Rav Pam: If you must suspect him, do it in an honorable manner.  He illustrated this with a personal recollection:

One year, when I taught at the mesivta level, I was asked to proctor a test.  I sat at my desk with a sefer but at the same time, I kept an eye on the talmidim.  At one point, I noticed one student copying from his neighbor’s paper.  Now I could have told him, ‘I will tear up your paper for cheating!’ or ‘I’m going to give you a zero!’  Instead, I walked over to him and whispered, ‘If you don’t understand the question, please come up to my desk and I will explain it to you.’

“Many years later, the talmid came over to me somewhere and said ‘What I learned by the Rebbi I have long forgotten, but this [what happened that day when I cheated on the test] I will never forget” (Rav Pam, Artscroll, p.145-146). 

What an incredible and beautiful lesson as we open Sefer Devarim, the final words that Moshe spoke to the nation he loved, and led, for forty years.  A parent/teacher has many roles.  Even when rebuke must be given to the child/student, we must look for ways to simultaneously defend them, thereby building up the person, even while criticizing the behavior.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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