Parshat Dvarim – Unveiling the Veiled Rebuke

A person’s view of events is often limited and the reality may be much deeper than might be assumed.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Torah scroll (illustration)
Torah scroll (illustration)
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

In the introductory section of his monologue that commences with Parshat Dvarim, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) places great focus on the appointment of judges that took place in Parshat Yitro, telling the Children of Israel about the need for the many judges that were appointed, what the judges’ qualifications were, and what was instructed to them:

“And I said to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot bear you on my own’… Select for yourselves wise and discerning men, who are known to your Tribes, and I will appoint them over you… And I took the heads of your Tribes, known men of wisdom, and I appointed them over you… And I commanded your judges at that time, saying, ‘Listen (to disputes) among your brethren, and judge righteously… Do not show favoritism in judgment; listen (to disputes) of great and small equally; do not fear any man – for justice is to God…” (Devarim 1:9-17)           

Rashi, based on the Sifri, explains that Moshe’s inability to bear the Children of Israel on his own refers to Moshe’s weighty burden of sole liability in judgment, for any error in judgment would devolve upon Moshe alone, and such was too great for him or for any one person. Rashi also invokes the Sifri and the words of the Talmud in Sanhedrin to elaborate that Moshe’s charge to the newly appointed judges included the need to be deliberate, methodical and patient, and to be uncompromisingly fair at every step, from the appointment of future judges, to the hearing of all cases, to the decision, the announcement of the decision and its implementation.

Upon consideration of this all, two questions arise:

Firstly, why in our parshah does Moshe omit that the appointment of new judges, and many details thereof, were at the suggestion and urging of Yitro? It is clear from a comparison of the texts of Parshat Yitro and Parshat Dvarim, as well as from the words of the Commentators, that the appointment of judges as depicted in Parshat Dvarim refers to the appointment of judges that occurred in Parshat Yitro; as such, why is there no mention of Yitro’s role and his motivation for this endeavor?

Secondly, why does Moshe here, in Parashat Dvarim, elaborate with such detail about his charges to the new judges, whereas this does not appear in Parshat Yiro?

As Rashi explains at the beginning of our parshah, Moshe’s words are presented as a rebuke to the Children of Israel. The rebuke is constructive, geared to prevent recurrence of the many sins and ensuing problems that were experienced during those 40 years in the Desert. It would seem that both of the above questions must be answered from this perspective.

Sefer Dvarim, the Book Deuteronomy, is Mishneh Torah, the Restatement of the Torah. The significance of this concept is not only that the Torah was presented by Moshe Rabbeinu in Sefer Dvarim in a manner that would be best understood by his audience, or that Moshe’s own rendition of the Torah was endowed with full Torah status, just like the earlier Books of the Torah, and became a form of Torah She-b’al Peh (Oral Law). There is something more – something that serves as a life lesson for us all.

In presenting Sefer Dvarim/Mishneh Torah, Moshe was teaching by way of example that a person’s view of events is often limited and that the reality may be much deeper than might be assumed. There are various levels of understanding and perceiving many occurrences and ideas, and one cannot presume that he has a full grasp of the matter and close himself off to a more thorough or profound comprehension. 

One very relevant case in point is that of the appointment of judges. Yitro’s motivation for the appointment of additional judges was to relieve Moshe of the time-consuming task of being the only judge, and to make things more efficient for the people. (V. Ramban and Seforno on Shemot 18:15, 22 et al.) Moshe pursued Yitro’s suggestion, and after reading about the topic in Parshat Yitro, one might think that the issue was pretty simple and was merely one of practicalities. However, in Parshat Devarim, Moshe reveals to the people that something deeper was transpiring: Moshe was apprehensive of being the sole judge due to the burden of liability, for a judge in the eyes of the Torah is held personally responsible for any errant outcome of the case. As specified by Rashi (Devarim 1:9, from Sifri), Moshe was indeed physically able to judge the people on his own; it was not an issue of stamina, but of spiritual liability, that was at hand, and this factor was of concern to God. Moshe, apparently out of respect for Yisro, conceded to the latter’s argument about the physical burden and inefficiencies that being sole judge entailed, and Moshe did not challenge Yisro and heeded his advice, but Moshe’s real motivation was beyond the practical.

By presenting this to B’nei Yisroel in Sefer De

varim/Mishneh Torah, Moshe was instructing the people that they must not view things superficially or after having heard only one side of the matter. The reason this was so pertinent was that the Children of Israel’s sins in the Desert stemmed from wrong assumptions that were rooted in a failure to consider the larger picture. The Sin of the Golden Calf involved people making incorrect assumptions regarding Moshe’s descent from Sinai; the Sin of the Spies was the result of an incorrect understanding of God’s promise of the Land of Israel in the face of a perceived reality that indicated the impossibility of conquest of the Land; so too were the other major sins in the Desert the result of a narrow and myopic view of things.

By illustration of the totally fresh perspective of the story of appointing new judges that was presented in Parshat Dvarim, Moshe was teaching the Children of Israel that the perspective before them is often only part of the picture, and that there may be another, deeper perspective that they must consider. This vital lesson was needed to prevent the recurrence of grievous sins, in line with Sefer Devarim’s theme of constructive rebuke. This is why Moshe own perspective of the story of appointing new judges appears specifically in our parshah.             

Why did Moshe specify his charges to the new judges only now and not in Parshat Yitro? The answer appears to be that Moshe’s charges to the judges are particularly germane to the theme of Sefer Dvarim, where Moshe was teaching the people, as part of his constructive rebuke, how crucial it is to be deliberate, methodical and patient in all ways before judging or deciding anything of import. The reason this was so necessary at this juncture is that in Sefer Dvarim, Moshe was giving the Children of Israel mussar (words of admonition) in an effort to prevent recurrence of grievous sin, as noted earlier.

The most major sins in the Desert were the result of impulsivity and acting in haste. To address this, Moshe shared his charges to the judges, implying that the Children of Israel heed and apply these charges to their own future lives, especially in an effort to prevent further spiritual calamity, all of which heretofore involved impulsivity and lack of deliberate judgment before acting.

On a broader scale, through Sefer Dvarim/Mishneh Torah does Moshe Rabbeinu provide the keys to approaching Torah and life in general. Taking a step back to properly understand things, acting with great forethought and deliberation, being aware that what is before our eyes and in our ears is often only a limited part of the picture, and appreciating that there are often unrevealed levels of perception to various events and concepts, are among the profound ideas that we must draw forth from this final and sometimes overlooked part of the Torah.