“For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.” — Deuteronomy 31:29
The Torah reading for this week is a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, from Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20. Nitzavim means “standing” and Vayelech means “and he went.” The Haftorah is from Isaiah 61:10–63:9.
As Moses’s life came to an end, he gave his last speech. As part of his final remarks, Moses told the Israelites that, inevitably, they would rebel against God. He said, “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD . . . ”
Now, if not for the fact that Moses was the greatest leader to ever live, I would have thought that his choice of words leaves much to be desired. How is telling the people that they were doomed to fail empowering? How was that encouraging? One can even argue that by placing the idea in their minds, Moses had set the people up for failure when they might have otherwise succeeded.
Indeed, this part of Scripture can seem quite disturbing. Israel was told without a doubt that they would anger God and be punished. It seems cruel to set a course toward failure. It seems unjust that they might have been given a task doomed for failure. However, I believe the following perspective can shed some light on what is intended to be a loving, caring, and important message on the eve of Moses’ death.
Think of a baby who is learning to walk. The parent knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the toddler will fall. Not once, not twice, but many times over. The baby will fall and fail time and again until eventually he or she can take a few small steps at a time. Ultimately, after much practice and effort, the baby will walk on his or her own.
A parent would never suggest that the child never try to walk, even though he or she may sustain some bruises along the way. If the baby could understand, the parent would say, “Don’t worry. You will fall, you will fail, but ultimately, you will learn to walk.” Once that child learns how to walk, he or she will be able to skip, jump, climb, hike, and go all sorts of places. Learning to walk involves some failure, but it is well worth it.
In the same way, Moses was telling the fledgling nation of Israel that they, too, needed to learn how to walk. Moses had led and carried them until now, but the time had come for them to walk on their own. Moses empowered them by acknowledging the pitfalls that they would stumble into, but also reassured them that it was all part of the process. Failure was part of success. Moses encouraged Israel not to give up when they fell down, and neither should we.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President