Devarim: Moses Opens His Final Sermon With Sharp Words

The end of wandering is near, the people stand at the edge of the promised land.

Why does Moses speak to the people about their bickering on the eve of his departure? Does he blame them or himself for their 38 year detour? 

Table for Five: Devarim

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! -Deut. 1:12


Miriam Yerushalmi, Director SANE; Author; Counselor

Hebrew is called “lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue/language,” which can also be read as an injunction to keep our speech holy. Parshas Devarim – meaning “words, things” – is usually read before Tisha B’Av, the holy day connected to rectifying the past and rebuilding unity within our nation and with Hashem.

In his final talk before Bnei Yisroel, Moshe Rabbeinu relates that in the past, he became momentarily disheartened by the people’s “trouble and burden” and by their “bickering”– which seems, comparatively, insignificant. Yet it is the last word, literally and figuratively, in Moshe’s statement here. The root of “rivchem” can mean “contend, complain” as well as “increase, multiply.” Small complaints multiply and increase one’s troubles and burdens, until they can challenge even the greatest of men, Moshe Rabbeinu. How much more can they affect us!

Moshe—despite a speech impediment, possibly the world’s most influential speaker—teaches us that words can be used in a way that will diminish disputes, bring about therapeutic realignment, and increase unity. We can speak the language of love, where the intent of our speech matters as much as the content: words that come from one’s heart will enter the heart of another. The more we use our devarim in lashon hakodesh, increasing our words for holy purposes—for prayer, learning, sympathy, encouragement—the more we arouse in ourselves the specific power that Gd used to create the world: the power of speech. The holier our speech, the holier and more powerful we become. Holy speech empowers us to be co-creators.


Rabbi Mark Blazer, President, Jewish Life Foundation, JLTV

As Deuteronomy/Devarim, the Second Telling begins, Moses expresses a frustration early on at Mt. Sinai. What is ironic is that Moses says these words at the beginning of the book, just as he begins to recount the journey from there to Eretz Yisrael. Did he feel that way forty years ago, or was this statement reflective of his perspective as he was looking back over all that time, and so many frustrating and disheartening experiences?

We are left with this testimony as well, not just the report we remember from earlier in the Torah. As we reconcile these two versions we take an important lesson: We know each person has their own unique point of view, but in addition, every individual can also have different perspectives within their own lifetime. As we age and develop our vision of the world changes, our beliefs and even the assessment of our own lives.

Our actions today always affect the future, but we have to appreciate that during times such as these, they may even have greater power. We have to try and envision what greater, long-lasting effects we may have. This requires imagining what we would like our future selves and our descendants to say about how we lived in this present.

The lesson from Moses’ life, his retelling of our history, is that as each of us shapes our narrative, and by consequence effect the lives of so many who will inhabit this world for years to come.


Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center

Why did Moses need to retell the story of the wandering in the desert in the first person, from his own viewpoint? Perhaps we can answer this question by seeing the verse not as a reproof to the people but as Moses reflecting on his own leadership.

“How” suggests uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, and helplessness. It also the opening word in the lamentations for the 9th of Av, expressing pain and grief. Together with “unaided”, it emphasizes Moses’ feeling of isolation.

Perhaps Moses’ sensation that he is bearing a heavy burden alone stems from his spiritual distance from the people. God was closer to Moses than to anyone else who ever lived, said Maimonides (Shemona Perakim, 7), and this intimacy intensified the gulf between him and the people. Moses did not speak to the people with his own voice but as an intermediary for God’s words, and Moses himself had Aaron as an intermediary because he was slow of speech. In other words, maybe Moses’ elevated spiritual level and his lack of direct speech to the people made him see their behavior as petty and intolerable.

Perhaps Moses moves to addressing the people directly at the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy because he realizes that his remoteness from the people has shaped his approach as leader. Through him we understand that leadership cannot be achieved by speaking across a spiritual gulf and via an intermediary, but by direct speech and partnership between the leader and the community.


Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

From Moshe’s frustration at the enormity of his job description, we can, says Nachmanides, determine (wait for it…!) the job description! What is a Rabbi for? What is a Torah leader meant to do? Nachmanides writes that here, the Torah clues us in to the three major responsibilities of a Rabbi.

Firstly, “tarchachem,” the trouble, means the hard work of teaching the Jewish people Torah. A Rabbi must spend time teaching Torah. Far from creating great sermons and lectures; teaching Torah means seeing to it that people are learning more of the texts of the Torah and Talmud. Without studying the Torah, Judaism can no longer thrive. Torah study is likened to water; as plants needs watering, Judaism needs Torah study.

“Masachem,” the burden, the second responsibility is to pray for the Jewish people. A Rabbi must pray on behalf of his congregants. When a Rabbi thinks that it is his own behavior that makes all this difference in things, that is an unacceptable arrogance. God is in charge and it is to Him that we pray in order to be able to influence the world. If you have ever encountered a Rabbi without such a humble orientation, you will know just why this is so crucial.

“Rivchem,” the bickering, means that a Rabbi must quell quarreling and disagreement between people. It is the responsibility of our leadership to bring us together, to live in peace as a people. Teaching authentic Torah, humble reliance upon God, and peacemaking. Look for these in a Torah leader.


Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of Sigi Ziering Institute, American Jewish University

Even Moshe Cannot Give His Father-in-Law the Credit

The book of Devarim is Moshe’s swan song.

By verse 12 we learn that an event and the memory of that event can differ dramatically. “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” Moshe recounts his suggestion that power be divided, judges of the thousands, hundreds fifty and the ten. The Israelites accepted his proposal, so he reports.

Discerning readers of the Torah will recall it differently.

Father-in-law Jethro came with his daughter – Moshe’s wife – and his grandchildren. He observed Moshe working from morning to night as judge and juror. Midian was a more advanced society than the Israelites just released from slavery, and Jethro a priest, suggested they diffuse power and create a hierarchy. Retain ultimate power and delegate the small stuff.

A typical father-in-law, Jethro was worried that Moshe’s demanding job would interfere with his marriage and his responsibility as a father. He was seemingly saying create time to take care of my daughter and my precious grandchildren.

Forty years later with almost none of the original generation still alive to contradict him, Moshe takes all the credit. Why does he not want to give his father-in-law credit for sagacious advice? Moshe also now experiences the Israelites as burdensome and bickering. The Torah graciously describes Moshe as undiminished, yet however regretfully, knowingly or unknowingly, he is ready for the transition of power – only not before he has had his final say. He still wants to enter the Promised Land. But that’s next week’s drama.

With thanks to Miriam Yerushalmi, Rabbi Mark Blazer, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, and Michael Berenbaum

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.



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