Timing Criticism – Devarim 5783

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Of all the books in the Torah, the fifth and final book covers the shortest period of time. Moses is nearing the time of his death. Taking the opportunity to address the people he led for forty years, he gives a series of lectures to prepare the people for life after he is gone. To the pre-eminent medieval commentator RaShI, Moses did more than give an address: he rebuked the people for their persistent bad behavior (Deuteronomy 1:3). For RaShI, the question is why did Moses wait until the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year to reprimand (daber, in Hebrew) the Israelites when Moses, according to the Talmud (Meg. 13b), was to die on the seventh day of the twelfth month, thirty-six days later?

RaShI contends that one should only reprimand others at the end of one’s life, just as Jacob waited until he was on his deathbed before he rebuked his son Reuben for not rescuing Joseph from his jealous brothers.  Deferring rebuke until one’s demise is justified by the Midrash. Reprimanding someone earlier suffers from two disadvantages. First, an earlier reprimand may require repetition should the bad behavior persist. And second, early rebuke will sour the relationship. How can the reprimanded party avoid feeling shame in any subsequent encounter? Besides, rebuke coming from the dying will be accepted with no ill-will since the subject of the rebuke feels pity knowing the rebuker has a short time to live.

But RaShI fails to address the obvious problem. Who knows when they will die? Moses and Jacob were exceptions. But ordinary people have no inside information on their time of death. If offering rebuke is a service – even a mitzvah – deferring until later may mean no reprimand at all should the rebuker miscalculate and die before rebuking. Further, the longer time passes between the bad behavior and the rebuke, the less helpful the rebuke becomes.

A way to save RaShI’s semantic observation but without accepting RaShi’s contention is to claim that the Torah has Moses reprimanding the people near his time of death instead of not reprimanding the people at all. It would have been simple for Moses to argue that he since was about to die there is no point in reprimanding the people. He is not going to be around much longer. Why would it matter? The opposite is the case. There is no better demonstration of love and concern than the willingness to correct bad behavior rather than by letting it take root by ignoring it.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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