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Remember and do not forget how you provoked the L-rd your G-d in the wilderness. From the day you left the land of Egypt until your arrival at this place, you have been rebels against G-d… (9:7)
The above introduces the central part of this Parasha, where Moses recounts the Israelites’ various aberrations during the forty year period in the desert. Moses refers – in varying depths in each case – to the sin of the Golden Calf, to the various occasions when they complained about the conditions en-route, to the attempted rebellion following the negative reports of the Spies, and finally to the death of Aaron – into which both Rashi and the Sforno read yet another rebuke. Rashi brings a tradition that some of the Israelites - realising that the Divine Presence was less evident after Aaron’s death – broke away and travelled towards Egypt. They were subsequently stopped when a group of Levites caught up with them, and subdued them after a battle with many deaths on both sides. Sforno brings a simpler explanation – Moses referred to Aaron’s death in order to obliquely remind the them that they had not behaved with appropriate gravitas on that occasion.
Several apparently strong questions present themselves on this extended passage.
Firstly, why did Moses castigate the people with reference to the behaviour of those who by then were already dead, or were too young to be liable for taking part in the above communal offences (c.f. Num. 14:30)? G-d does not blame children for the sins of their parents – the Prophet Ezekiel states explicitly that G-d rejects the doctrine of, ‘fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are on edge’ (Ez. 18:2-3).
Secondly, why did Moses recount the Golden Calf in great detail, but the Spies in lesser detail? And why did he mention the grumbles – of varying degrees of lack of legitimacy - by name only? Then, he did not mention, but only allude to, the discreditable conduct following Aaron’s death – something that took place during their own lifetime. And Moses did not even seem to hint at the complaints of lack of water after the death of Miriam (Num 20:2-5), and the grumbles about the Manna – the ‘light bread’ (Num. 21:5).
In proposing an approach to these questions, one can learn some important fundamentals in the art of persuading groups of people to face their shortcomings and improve on them. These are explained below.
For example, a teacher tells Chaim, his student, that he cheated. He genuinely wants him to prepare for, and execute, his tests and examinations in an honest manner – and apply that measure of honesty to all his other activities. Yes he cheated that time, but Chaim hates it when he is looked at in the eye and given that message unambiguously. Such a rebuke is hated to such an extent that it can be counterproductive. Chaim may so loath his teacher that he will cheat again – just being more careful not to get caught.
The teacher may use a more general approach: he may, instead, give the class a general talk about cheating and – without mentioning names – allude to the fact that he knows it goes on within Chaim’s actual group… If that teacher has sufficient classroom presence, the student body might arrive at ‘Chaim’s address’ and in doing so, Chaim himself will probably feel betrayed by the teacher and react negatively by planning to do the same thing again.
A different way of handling the situation would be for the teacher to reminisce about things that took place in his classes in previous schools… he might refer to a fight where – twenty years ago – a quarrel broke out, where the loser temporarily lost the use of his left eye. His audience will feel good about themselves, thinking: ‘Well – we are OK – not really angels, but we don’t go about savaging others with black eyes at every opportunity…’ He might then go on to tell something a little ‘closer to home’… ‘in that school we had to cancel the examinations of a whole class because someone broke into the teacher’s room and distributed advance copies of the forthcoming questions…’
If he relates these incidents effectively, he may actually make his class a little self-righteous. What they hear is that he is actually praising them – he does not imply for one moment that the incidents concerned his present class… so he managed to teach a lesson in dishonesty by making the students feel good about themselves instead of being castigated…
Thinking it over then and afterwards, the cheats themselves will see that it was ‘their sin’ – the offence of dishonesty. The students concerned – being intelligent enough – will have got the hint, but they will not feel resentful… They will respect the intelligence and sensitivity of their pedagogue for having made his point without humiliating them in the process… and they will certainly remember the stories and the messages they are to convey…
This is the principle of the methods Moses used to rebuke the Israelites…
(a) He first called them a ‘stiff-necked people’ (9:6) – which means, according to the Sforno, a stubborn people. Stubbornness is usually incompatible with righteousness and uprightness, because a stubborn person will not listen to reason even when his conduct is wrong. However that epithet meant little as at that stage it was not qualified. It did, however, serve to get their attention.
(b) He then made reference to the faults of the past generation… calling them en route ‘your sins’ (9:21). However those offences were clearly of ‘the previous school’ – the previous generation. The Israelites about to enter the Promised Land were not those who had worshipped the Golden Calf, nor had they accepted the report of the Spies. Telling them about such things actually made them feel good about themselves, thinking – ‘Well – we are OK – not really angels, but we don’t worship idols or threaten mutiny at every opportunity…’ And the language used when recounting the incident of the Golden Calf: ‘your sins’ ‘you angered G-d’ ‘you have been rebels’ – rather than ‘their sins’ ‘they angered G-d’ ‘they had been rebels’ was probably lost on them at that stage… but only important at a later stage, as explained.
(c) By the time Moses gave them that feeling of self-righteousness, he had got them on his side. He then continued with the words, ‘And in Taveira, in Massa, and in Kivrot Ha-taava, you were provoking G-d.’ (9:22) All those incidents – complaints about the distance of the journey (Rashi to Num. 11:1), the shortage of water at Rephidim (Ex. 17:1-7), and the manna-only diet (Num. 11:4-6) took place soon after the actual Exodus – nothing directly to do with the people now standing before Moses. But – very subtly – Moses added a new element here. He was actually referring to their own sins. The rebuke about their grumbles over the length of journey were paralleled a generation later with the rebellion following Aaron’s death. Without Aaron – when the ‘clouds of glory were removed’ – G-d seemingly further away – the journey suddenly seemed very much longer – and (according to Rashi) prompted an abortive attempt from part of the community to break ranks and return to Egypt. The rebuke about the shortage of the water at Rephidim was applicable – in an enlarged form – to the Israelites’ conduct in the incident where Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it. And the rebuke about the manna-only diet was equally applicable to the incident a generation later when the Israelites complained G-d and Moses that they were sick of the manna – ‘the light bread’ (Num. 21:5). Thus in three words Moses managed to allude to three major sins of the present generation by just referring to the parallel ones of the past. (And he did not make that message too obvious – which can explain why Moses mentioned the incidents of Taveira, Massa, and Kivrot Ha-taava in the wrong chronological order.)
(d) Next he referred to an actual unpleasant and reprehensible incident in that actual generation – but in an oblique way – by mentioning the cause – Aaron’s death… which was enough to get the message across…The overall impression of his rebuke had by now two elements. One – implied praise – that only their ancestors and not themselves were involved. That praise created goodwill. Secondly – the very tactful veiled rebukes were sufficiently clear – just – to carry the rebuke over to their own generation, but not enough to impair the ‘goodwill’.
(e) Only in the very final sections of his speech did Moses’ rebuke become clear to the people. For in this Parasha he did call them ‘a stiff-necked people’ – but without any qualification. He only mentioned the sins of the fathers in significant depth… and in doing so implicitly praised them for not following them. Nevertheless he refers to those sins in the second person – ‘your sins’. However they were so obviously not their sins in reality, that they were not offended by this epithet and the real meaning of that phrase did not dawn on them until they had inwardly digested the rebuke. For subsequently – with the goodwill in place – Moses declared to them,
For I know your rebelliousness and your stubborness (literally being stiff-necked). If you were rebels against the Almighty when I was alive, how much more so will that be the case after my death? (31:27)
Only at that point – when the stubborn trait was repeated – did the speech in this Parasha come into context. It was the stubborness through which the Israelites refused to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors that was the root cause of their present and future shortcomings. And by then, they had a new understanding of the meaning of the rebuke in this Parasha. It was not oblique praise, but oblique criticism and directions for self-improvement.
We learn from this that when rebuking one should do so in such a way that the person is on your side before the full brunt of the rebuke becomes clear. And in helping a person overcoming his shortcomings, one must focus on the root causes, as Moses did…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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