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Devarim 5763-2003

“The Gentle Reproof”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, we begin reading the fifth book of the Torah, known as Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew. The book of Devarim is also called Mishneh Torah, which is commonly translated as “repetition” or “review” of the Torah. This name underscores that many of the items that were recorded in the previous books of the Torah are repeated in this fifth book. The majority of the book of Devarim is a record of the exhortations, warnings, and reproofs that Moses delivers to the people, pleading with them to keep the Torah and the mitzvot and informing them of the specific rewards and punishments that await them for the observance and non-observance of the mitzvot.

The book of Devarim often elaborates on quite of the few of the mitzvot that were already mentioned in the previous books. So, for instance, the Ten Commandments are repeated once again in parashat Va’etchanan. However, of the more than 100 laws which are contained in Deuteronomy, more than 70 are completely new.

The book of Devarim begins with the words that were spoken by Moses in the last five weeks of his life and were enunciated as a last will and testament to his beloved people to teach and to reprove them. Deuteronomy 1:1 & 2 read: “Ayleh Had’varim,” These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel. According to tradition, he calls all the people, so that they would all be present and have the opportunity to respond to the words of reproof.

Before mentioning the actual words, however, the Torah uncharacteristically lists a relatively long list of locations where Moses spoke to the people. Moses proceeds to remind the people that he spoke with them: “…on the other side of the Jordan, by the wilderness, the Arava, opposite the sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan and Chatzerot, and Dee’zahav. It is eleven days journey from Horeb, by way of Mt. Se’ir to Kadesh-Barnea.”

Why this long list of locations? Our commentators suggest that Moses was concerned that the people would be influenced by the local idolatry and sin when they entered the land of Canaan. Consequently, Moses began his words by reminding the people of the long string of sins and rebellions that marked their 40 years of travel in the wilderness. After all, if they and their parents could sin in the wilderness when they were constantly surrounded by miracles, surely great dangers would await them in the new land, where there were no constant reminders of G-d’s presence. Nevertheless, Moses does not actually mention the sins. Instead he alludes to them indirectly by naming the places where the sins were committed.

Reb Yosef Chaim of Baghdad provides a lovely parable to elucidate this method of reproof. Based on the Midrash Tanchuma, he tells of a King who had a magnificent orchard with beautiful ripe fruit. The King placed a guard dog in the orchard to protect the fruit from thieves. Once, while looking out the window, he saw one of his trusted officers entering the orchard to eat the fruits without permission. The guard dog attacked the officer and ripped his garments. The King said in his heart, “If I say to my beloved officer that I saw him, he’ll be embarrassed, and I don’t want to embarrass him. But if I remain silent, then he will think that I did not see him, and he’ll repeat this dastardly act.” When the officer entered the King’s palace, the King casually remarked how terrible it was that the wild dog ripped the officer’s clothes. The officer clearly understood that the King saw him steal the fruits.

Similarly, Moses did not want to embarrass the people of Israel, so he did not explicitly mention their sins, but rather mentioned the place and location of their sins. The people took the hint and understood.

Rabbi Yisrael of Rhizin (one of the foremost Chassidic leaders in Poland, 1797-1851) stated that a great leader, when he wants to give words of Torah and mussar (reproof) to his people, has to “dress” the message in stories, parables, and legends–things that speak to the heart, so that they can penetrate the heart and enter the soul.

A friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a piece that he wrote, which reflects on the broader issue of education, as seen from the Torah perspective, and concerns the issue of giving proper reproof. It’s entitled “In the Aftermath of Littleton” and is a reflection on the tragic shooting by two Columbine High School students that resulted in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher in that Denver area High School on April 20, 1999.

In the aftermath of Littleton, we have tried a little of this and a little of that. Most of the noise was about gun control, and it failed. Then Congress passed a law allowing (not requiring, but allowing) schools to post the Ten Commandments.

I’m a big fan of the Ten Commandments, but ignoring the constitutional issues, does anyone really think that putting a poster on a wall is going to create moral children? It can’t hurt. But putting the Ten Commandments on the wall is typical of our “quick-fix” approach to the emptiness of our popular culture. It is akin to thinking that a few seminars on tolerance will eliminate hate or anger.

Being good takes work!

At the heart of morality is the sacrifice of self-interest to a higher code. It means returning the wallet you find on the street. It means listening to someone else’s problems when you want to talk about your own. And, it means subduing your anger even when you are in the right.

None of the above is easy. Walking by a poster ten times a day isn’t going to create a child with values. If you want to see why, think about the minimum level of morality, that of civility — saying “Please” and “Thank you.” Saying “Please” and “Thank you” is the minimum level, because you only have to say it, not feel it. But even that minimum level takes an immense amount of work. You have to tell a child over and over to say “Please” and “Thank you” before it becomes second nature. Think of how much work it takes to get a child to share or think of others.

Being good takes work. And Judaism may have something to tell us about how to create moral children.

Moral fitness is akin to physical fitness. No one would argue that if our kids are overweight or out of shape that we can solve the problem by putting up a poster that tells them that “Fit is better than fat.” We understand that if you want to be good at sports or music you must practice dull, repetitive tasks such as free-throw shooting for hour after hour.

If we want our children to be good, we must work at it. To make goodness a habit, to make children or adults think of others along with themselves, takes hours of training. Here are some ways to make it happen.

Set aside a container for charity and make a habit out of giving something every day, even if it is only spare change. Do it in a set way, say every morning before breakfast, so that it becomes a habit.

Express gratitude. Thank God for the food you eat. Thank the person at the table who cooked and served the meal. And recognize your children’s good behavior, not just the bad.
Spend time with your children. This is the hardest part. We want virtuous children, who learn virtue –- without our help. It’s impossible. Quantity time is quality time. Jews have the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, the telephone “drops dead,” the television ceases, parents hug their children and bless them, eat three mandated meals together, and sing, and talk of the Bible. If you don’t have the Sabbath, take a taste of it into your life. Turn off the TV and telephone at least one night a week. Dedicate a night to the family, and make it a rule that everyone stays home that night. Talk to one another. It works wonders.

Finally, be a role model. One kind deed, one act of tolerance or of consideration does more to teach children about morality than 100 lectures, or 200 trips past a poster of the Ten Commandments.

There is an old Jewish story about two fathers in synagogue. One talks during the service, but lectures his child about the importance of prayer. The other father says nothing to the child, but devotes his being to prayer every week. The second child grows up dedicated to prayer. The first grows up talking during services, but lectures his child about the importance of prayer.
Be a role model. Do. It is your best bet if you want your children to follow.

The Torah has much to teach us in so many areas of our lives. We don’t always need to come in roaring, to “sock it to ’em,” and “bowl ’em over.” Often the indirect, gentler method of reproof (which means teaching) is most efficacious. It worked for Moses. It can work for us.

May you be blessed.