This week's parsha
Beating Around the Bush
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, of blessed memory, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, related:
“The Rebbe once learned of a scheme to personally humiliate one of the Israeli prime ministers. He made every effort to stop the individuals from doing so. He said, ‘To rebuke their actions, yes; to humiliate them, no.’
“It takes special strength to rebuke and love at the same time.”
This delicate and unique balance between love and rebuke, concern and compassion, truth and tolerance, recalls a different rebbe: Moses.
As the book of Deuteronomy opens, Moses is left with five weeks to live.
He has lots to say to the people he’s led for forty years, and even more to say to a people whose promising but uncertain future looms just beyond the Jordan River.
The fifth book of Moses is thus, essentially, his last will and testament. Here’s how it begins:
These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban and Chatzeroth and Di-Zahab . . .
“These are the words” -- what words?
This group of verses seems only to catalog the Israelite desert itinerary, making no mention of any words spoken by Moses. Were they perhaps edited out, one wonders?
The noted Bible commentator Rashi offers a creative insight.
“These are the words” refers to words of rebuke that Moses directed at the Israelites. Moses here enumerates all the places where the Jews angered G‑d.
Thus, “in the wilderness” is not a nostalgic reference to the setting of a memorable road trip, but serves to introduce a homily given by Moses to Israel, in which he recalls their many transgressions against G‑d, by means of mentioning the places where they fell short.
The geographical notes in these verses delineate Israelite pitfalls, not pit stops.
“In the wilderness” alludes to the time the Israelites angered G‑d in the desert, by saying, “If only we had died by the hand of G‑d.”
“In the plain”: He rebuked them for their worship of the Baal Pe’or deity in the plains of Moab.
“Opposite the Sea of Reeds”: A reference to their rebellion at the Red Sea, when they said, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to the desert to die?”
And the list goes on (as enumerated by Rashi ad loc.) . . .
What’s puzzling here is the veiled way in which Moses chose to reproach his people. How out of character for a man whose hallmark was clarity and truth! Does not allusion leave room for confusion -- problematic behavior for any leader, any time?
But here lays the true greatness of Moses, or rather the greatness of his truth.
The truth he embodied and communicated wasn’t the cold and metallic type, the variety which smacks of judgment, self-righteousness and condescension.
It was, rather, a warm and tender truth, packaged in an embrace, laced with sensitivity, and graced with compassion.
Thus, while these words of rebuke were absolutely necessary, when speaking them Moses made sure to allude instead of accuse, to beat around the bush rather than burn it down, in order to open, rather than close, the hearts and minds of the people he addressed.
He avoided hurt with heart. Moses taught that to humiliate is to annihilate. No matter the transgressor or transgression.
There were, point out the commentators, two instances of national sin that Moses failed to mention in his last talk.
The first one happened at Marah: “They could not drink the waters at Marah because they were bitter. The people complained against Moses . . .”
The second occurred in Kadesh: “There was no water for the assembly, and they gathered against Moses . . . They quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Why have you brought the congregation of G‑d to this wilderness to die here . . . ?’”
What’s particularly striking about Moses’ omission of these transgressions is that these crimes were directed not (only) at G‑d, but at himself. We can just imagine how these accusations must have hurt -- especially that mother-of-all-chutzpah tirade at Kadesh!
Not to mention that as an indirect result of that rant, Moses was dealt arguably the harshest blow of his lifetime: G‑d withheld from him the fulfillment of his lifelong dream of entering the Holy Land.
Yet, amazingly, this calculated omission from his speech was not despite the hurt and betrayal he felt, but because of it.
Moses worried that his personal grievance might somehow smuggle its way into his words or tone of voice when speaking to the Jews, and that as a result his words of admonishment would be tainted with a bitter edge, putting his listeners on the defensive, possibly pushing them further as opposed to the intended nearer.
This is the thinking of a leader in love with his flock. Of what use might referencing to Marah and Kadesh be in the grander scheme of things, if even a chance existed that it might stunt rather than assist the growth of his beloved people?
Moses recognized how sensitive people are when admonished, and adjusted and divested himself accordingly.
What’s in It for Me?
Sometimes it’s our responsibility to admonish. When that happens, we must ensure that there’s no bite in our bark. It will be picked up by the recipient, and the rebuke will be discarded.
By all means, hand out an earful when necessary; just make sure it’s full of heart.