Moses’ farewell rebuke


By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim,
Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22.

We are blessed to have summer camps open again, blessed for the return toward normal and the miracle of vaccines that the reopenings represent and blessed for the important role that Jewish camp can play in building young Jews’ love for Judaism and Jewish community. I am blessed to be working at one this summer — for the reasons I mentioned above, and because it is an impressively well-run camp with impressively capable young counselors.

Even with my pride in this camp, of course there are sometimes still missteps. The counselors are almost all teenagers, the children missed a whole year of proper socialization and emotional development. Kids will be kids. Adolescents will not have fully functioning amygdalae. It is necessary on occasion to course-correct, and although I try to guide gently and lead by example, there may be times when my tzevet (staff) or my hanichim (campers) feel rebuked. It is always with love for them and for the success of the camp as a whole.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses begins his long final address to the Israelites. Almost the entirety of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses bidding the Israelites farewell, reminding them of all they’d been through in the last 40 years, warning them of what may still be to come, and doing his best to ensure that his teachings and leadership would carry on after he dies.

Yalkut Shimoni, a medieval book of aggadic midrash, offers, “It would have been fitting that the rebukes (in the Book of Deuteronomy) be pronounced by Balaam, and that the blessings (in the parshah of Balak) be said by Moses. . . But God said: Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them; and let Balaam, who hates them, bless them.”

It is only with the love of an exasperated parent that Moses can give these final rebukes, warnings and lessons. To invite an outsider in to judge without context would be cruel and unconstructive. Moses does also offer his blessings, or passes on the prophecies of the blessings God will grant in the Holy Land, but Balaam’s blessing makes it into our morning liturgy because the unexpected nature of it gives it that much more weight.

As the parshah and the sefer begin, Moses bewails, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden and the bickering!” [Deuteronomy 1:12]. It is neither his most careful and loving rebuke, nor his harshest, but it may be his most honest. The Israelites were hard on him, and he could not have maintained leadership without the aid of the chieftains to delegate, just as I would not be able to manage 90-some campers without the aid of the counselors to share the load.

This Shabbat, let us take the moment to reflect on this past 15 months, which may well have felt like 40 years. Let us remind ourselves of the good times and the difficult ones, of the lessons we learned and the blessings we came to appreciate better. And, where necessary, may we offer rebukes and warnings with love and wisdom, that we may build a stronger future for the whole of the community.

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein serves Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge.

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