Rabbi Berel Wein
Moshe’s discourse to the children of Israel at the end of his life continues in this week’s parsha. I think that it has to be said that Moshe presents a “fair and balanced” review of the events that have befallen Israel during its desert sojourn. The good and the bad, the exalted and the petty, are all recorded for us in his words. And his view of the future of his beloved people is also a balanced mixture of woeful warnings and of great reward, of unlimited opportunity and of crushing defeats. As always, he is forced to leave the choice of behavior and direction to the people of Israel themselves, but he attempts surely to guide their choices in the right direction through his words and predictions. This is perhaps the greatest quality of a leader – the ability to clearly outline significant choices in life and society and give guidance to one’s people to make wise and beneficial decisions.
Leaders who portray only one side of the coin, the bright one – who promise only utopian lower taxes and yet increased welfare programs, peace without sacrifice and social systems of equality and blind justice that do not take into account the realities of human nature – only encourage inevitable disappointment, cynicism and apathy in their people and constituents. On the other hand, leaders who govern by dire threats, terrible predictions, emphasizing all society’s ills and generating only drabness and a bleak view of the future destroy human initiative in a fog of pessimism. Moshe, the paradigm of the great and wise leader, presents, throughout his discourse here in the book of Devarim, both sides of the coin. Unfortunately, over the ages, the Jews have not always chosen wisely. People hear what they wish to hear no matter what the speaker really says. We are prone to misquote, misunderstand, repeat phrases out of context and generally ignore what we do not wish to hear and understand. Moshe’s attempt to portray the great achievements of the desert – and especially of Sinai – and balance them with the reminders of the tragedies and wars that also mark Israel’s journey through the desert had only limited influence on the people.
Our sages teach us that the Jewish people simply did not believe Moshe’s dire predictions would ever really occur. “G-d simply had too much invested in the Jewish people.” It was a forerunner of our modern “too big to fail” philosophy regarding otherwise corrupt financial institutions. So Moshe’s darker side of the coin was never really believed by the Jewish people. They heard only the good – what they wanted to hear – and ignored the rest. There are many Jews today that unfortunately listen to the opposite strains of Jewish life. They despair of our future and our wonderful state. They also only hear what they wish to hear, fueled by a biased and ignorant media and narrow-minded intellectuals. They see no grand future for Israel, the people, the state and the land. A well-considered study of Moshe’s words and his realistic and balanced message would certainly be in order.