In his Biblical commentary entitled “Ha’amek Davar,” Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin (d. 1893) points out that if Moses, in one of his valedictory addresses, wanted to say that the Egyptians “did us evil” at the time they enslaved us, then the Hebrew is grammatically incorrect. Instead of “va-ya-re’u ottanu” (Deuteronomy 26:6), the Hebrew should read “va-ya-re’u lanu” as it appears in an earlier passage (Numbers 20:15). Consequently, the correct translation of the text would not be “did us evil” but “made us evil!” This shocking outcome cries out for an explanation. And the NeTZIV, as Rabbi Berlin was known, is ready to provide one.
The NeTZIV recalls the early justification Pharaoh gives for oppressing the Israelites and limiting their growth. In Exodus 1:10 Pharaoh expresses the fear that should war erupt, these foreigners might be inclined to ally with the enemies of Egypt and join the attack from within. Of course it never entered the minds of the Israelites to consider any such thing. But that the Egyptians were led to believe so resulted in enmity. That enmity led to oppression and, as one might imagine, the oppressed Israelites began to hate their Egyptian tormenters. What bothers Moses as his life nears its end is less the fact the Egyptians hated us but that the Egyptians made us hate them!
Rabbi Berlin’s interpretation is reminiscent of the statement attributed to Golda Meir. She is reputed to have said about the Palestinians (although Harry Rachlin finds no primary source to confirm it) that: “We can forgive them for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” While Golda’s actual words remain in question, the sentiment is clear and entirely consistent with Jewish and Israeli values. We, as a people, more than regret being forced to hate or kill. We are resentful and angered to be put into such a horrid position. It is our desire to be peaceful and loving and we act otherwise only when compelled.
Before Moses dies he wants to do more than recount elements of Israel’s painful past. Moses wants to remind the people Israel of their noble character and their quintessential values. It is only by remaining true to these values that the people can fulfill their destiny.