Entering Deuteronomy, we stand with the tribes of Israel, gathered for a farewell address from Moses, known from biblical and rabbinic traditions as the wise, benevolent, dedicated Moshe Rabbenu (‘our teacher’, ‘our master’). Moses’ opening lines portend a review of recent history: ‘The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb [i.e. Sinai]’ (Deuteronomy 1:6)and, continues Moses, God instructed us to proceed toward Canaan. That first-person plural evokes Moses’ steadfast identification with the fate of the Israelites throughout those years of meandering, his support for them even in the face of divine rage at their misdeeds.
Quickly, however, a new Moses emerges, one more crotchety and cantankerous than the Moses who has until now so skillfully led the people – most recently deftly maneuvering the tribes who wanted to settle in Transjordan into support for the effort to conquer Canaan, and striking a compromise over the last details of the land inheritance by Zelophehad’s daughters.
Our first hint that Moses is a changed man comes with his review of the scouts sent into Canaan after the Exodus. He pins the responsibility for that fiasco on the people, not on the Lord or himself: ‘Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us,”’ (Deuteronomy 1:22). The report the scouts brought back is here portrayed as positive and encouraging, and yet, Moses continues: ‘You refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God. You sulked in your tents [and complained]’ (1:26-27). If the tone is not evident yet, it becomes clear when Moses adds, ‘Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said, “You shall not enter [the Land] either”’ (1:37).
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses berates the people for misdeeds and affronts he anticipates they will commit as they conquer Canaan. He cajoles them to abjure any worship of the Canaanites’ gods and any imitation of the decadent sexuality of Canaanite society. Like a tired judge who has seen it all before, seen people fail and suffer and often later rehabilitate themselves, Moses in Deuteronomy predicts the Israelites’ infidelity to the Lord and His ways, their destruction, exile… and eventual return. He tells them how poorly he expects them to fare – even though, as we know, berating is ineffective. It merely lowers the level of behavioural expectations.
Why do we encounter here such a sad, ineffectual Moses? Perhaps to enable us to appreciate why Moses must now depart from the scene, making way for Joshua. After blaming the Israelites for his being banned from Canaan, Moses straightaway introduces his successor, whom he is told to, ‘allot with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel’ (Deuteronomy 1:10).
Perhaps it is too much to expect that a leader will know when his or her effectiveness has waned and the time has come to make way for another. The portrait of the aging Moses can serve as a warning to us, helping us understand what made it necessary for a new leader to ascend – and perhaps even to learn how to bow out gracefully ourselves.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is an American-Israeli educator, translator and writer. He serves as Av Bet Din for the Masorti Bet Din of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.