Spoiler Alert: While preparing this week’s shiur, I came across a potential explanation that makes it appear as if Am Yisrael said the most horrific things to Moshe Rabbeinu. In order not to besmirch anyone’s honour and so as not to make any false accusations, we will be treading very carefully.
The first three Parshiot of the Book of Devarim serve as a recap of many of the watershed events that occurred during Am Yisrael’s forty-year sojourn in the desert. In addition, these Parshiot serve as a castigation of Am Yisrael for their behaviour during this time period, which was, more often than not, suboptimal. Rashi [Devarim 1:1] explains that “If [Moshe] had rebuked only some of them, those who were in the marketplace [i.e., absent] might have said, ‘You heard from [Moshe], and did not answer a single word regarding this and that; had we been there, we would have answered him!’ Therefore, [Moshe] assembled all of them, and said to them, ‘See, you are all here; if anyone has an answer, let him answer!’” Moshe tells them [Devarim 1:12:13] “How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself? Bring for yourselves wise and understanding men, known among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you”. Moshe cannot handle Am Yisrael all by his lonesome, and he needs some help over here. Am Yisrael respond to his suggestion by telling him [Devarim 1:14] “The thing you have spoken is good to do”. Well isn’t that great! The people are on board! Who cares? What difference does it make if the people agree or disagree? Had they told Moshe “We think that’s a silly idea”, would he have changed his mind? Rashi explains their reaction according to the hypothesis that Moshe was castigating them: “You decided the matter for your benefit. You should have replied, ‘Our teacher, Moshe! From whom is it proper to learn, from you or from your disciple? Is it not [better to learn] from you, who have taken such pains about them?’ However, I knew your thoughts; you were saying [to yourselves], ‘Many judges will now be appointed over us; if one does not know us we shall bring him a gift and he will show us favour.’” The fact that they agreed with Moshe’s suggestion was improper. They were looking for friends in the courtroom. Call me a sceptic, but there has got to be more here than meets the eye.
The proper thing to do in this kind of a situation is to identify the original episode in the Torah that Moshe is revisiting, and to compare the two versions. The problem here is that it is not clear which episode in the Torah Moshe is referencing. Until a few years ago, there was no doubt in my mind that Moshe was referring to an episode in the beginning of Parashat Yitro. In this particular episode, Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, comes to visit his son-in-law. He sees Moshe judging his people [Shemot 18:13] “from the morning until the evening”. Yitro, feeling that Moshe is wearing himself out, suggests that he appoint suplamental judges to take care of the lesser cases, freeing Moshe to preside over the bigger ones [Shemot 18:22-23]: “They shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that any major matter they shall bring to you and they themselves shall judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they shall bear [the burden] with you. If you do this thing… you will be able to survive, and also, this people will come upon their place in peace”. However, an article I read by Rav Chanoch Waxman completely changed my mind. Rav Waxman asks a number of questions on the “Yitro Hypothesis”, but two of them stand out: Why is Yitro absent in Moshe’s recap?  Why is the Yitro Episode revisited as part of Moshe’s tirade? Am Yisrael have done no wrong here. Could it be that the only reason that Moshe is chastising them is because they agreed to his plan?
Rav Waxman gives an alternate explanation that now seems so obvious that I feel like a complete idiot that I ever thought that Moshe was referencing the Yitro Episode. D’oh. In Parashat Beha’alotecha the natives become restless [Bemidbar 11:5]: “The multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?’”. Am Yisrael become nostalgic for the “good old days” in Egypt. They are sick of the desert and they are sick of the manna, and they make their feelings known. Moshe reaches the end of his rope, and he lashes out at Hashem [Bemidbar 11:11]: “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?” Hashem, cognizant that Moshe is overworked and underpaid, commands him [Bemidbar 11:16-17] “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel… they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone”. This, teaches Rav Waxman, is the “trouble, burden, and strife” that Moshe chastises them for forty years later.
Once the story in Parashat Devarim has been identified with the story in Parashat Beha’alotecha, it should be a simple matter to locate where Am Yisrael tells Moshe “The thing you have spoken is good to do”. The problem is that in the original episode after their original complaint, they are silent. The only words are spoken by Hashem and Moshe. But there is a way ahead. The key here is the word “la’asot” – “to do”. This word is extraneous – they could have just as easily told Moshe “The thing you have spoken is good”. Looking back at Parashat Beha’alotecha, Moshe finishes his harsh words with Hashem by telling Him [Bemidbar 11:15] “If this is the way You treat me (oseh li), please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune”. With a great amount of hesitance, I suggest that perhaps not only are Am Yisrael sick of the desert and sick of the manna, they are also sick of Moshe Rabbeinu. When Moshe begs Hashem to take his life, they mutter “Wouldn’t that be nice…”
This is admittedly a terrible accusation, and one made with a great amount of trepidation. But there is another indicator that this may very well be what happened. Am Yisrael’s answer to Moshe in Parashat Devarim is preceded by the words [Devarim 1:14] “You answered me and you told me…” The combination of “answered” followed by “told” nearly always indicates that harsh words are being spoken. The first time it is used in the Torah is when Avraham is trying to save the city of Sodom from destruction. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 18:27] “Avraham answered and said, ‘Behold now I have commenced to speak to Hashem, although I am dust and ashes.’” Rashi comments that “Avraham approached: to speak harshly”. When Yaakov and Lavan argue after Yaakov tries running away with his family, the “answered and said” pair is used no less than three times. In fact, the pair appears in the Torah a total of seventeen times (not counting Parashat Devarim), and in fourteen of them are spoken in anger. Under the assumption that this interpretation is correct, then it could indicate that even though the people are smiling and telling Moshe “Great idea!” their words are infinitely more insidious.
This Saturday night we will be observing Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Tisha b’Av commemorates, among other things, the destruction of both the first and second Beit HaMikdash and the dispersal of Am Yisrael into an exile from which we have not yet returned. Tisha b’Av is an ideal opportunity to turn our thoughts inward and to ask ourselves “What have we done today to hasten our redemption?” A sin that Am Yisrael has been guilty of since its inception is our treatment of our leaders. With great ease and with little forethought we chastise, we denigrate, and, yes, we curse our leaders. What we have forgotten is that Am Yisrael means “The Nation of Israel”. As a nation we need leaders. But even more, as a nation we need followers. We need to internalize that a leader is only as strong as the will of his people to be led. Sometimes we must surrender some of our power and to allow it to be channelled into something bigger then ourselves. For a “stiff-necked people” it’s a difficult ask, but for a nation thirsty for redemption, it’s the only way ahead.
Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful fast,
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.