Rebuke or Inspiration?
The Book of Devarim is Moshe’s last speech to the Jewish people, 37 days prior to his death. Everyone knows that a good speech needs a hook, something that will captivate the attention of the audience in the first few moments of the speech. What was Moshe’s hook?
In the opening verse of the book there are a number of locations listed whose exact identity is questionable:
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. (Devarim 1:1)
What do these different locations represent? Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, suggests that the Jewish people sinned in each of these places. Moshe is therefore subtly reminding the people that they have sinned in the past and must be mindful of that for the future.
According to Rashi the sin of each location is as follows:
Arabah - Sin of Baal Peor
Suph - Complaints before the sea split
Paran - Sin of the spies
Tophel, Laban - Complains about the Manna
Hazzeroth - Rebellion of Korach
Di-zahav - Sin of the Golden Calf
The Bechor Shor takes a different approach. The Bechor Shor writes that each of these locations was a place wherein God gave mitzvot to the Jewish people (Ibn Ezra and Ramban take this approach as well).
According to the Bechor Shor, the mitzvot given at each location are as follows:
Paran - The giving of Torah at Sinai
Tophel - “Chok u’mishpat, decree and ordinance” (Shemot 25:25). Interestingly in Parshat Beshalach the Bechor Shor provided a completely different understanding of these words!
Laban Hazzeroth - Laban means “the field of.” In the field of Hazzeorth, Torah was taught. (See Bamidbar 11:35-12:16)
Di-zahav - This is a reference to the Torah taught from the Ohel Moed (mishkan), which was made of gold (zahav).
What a significant contrast between these two opinions! For Rashi, these locations represent the worst of the desert experience and for the Bechor Shor these locations represent the best, the times wherein the Jewish people received the Torah.
The book of Devarim as a whole contains two main themes: Rebuke and mitzvot. Prior to ending his role as leader of the Jewish people, Moshe seeks to leave two lasting messages. Have a healthy fear of Heaven (rebuke), and perform the commandments of God (mitzvot). The Bechor Shor (Devarim 11:26) in fact writes that the first half of the book of Devarim is dedicated to rebuke, and the second half is dedicated to mitzvot.
But how did Moshe hook the Jewish people into his speech? What did he use to captivate their attention and ultimately motivate them to aspire for greatness? For the Bechor Shor the answer is clear: Torah. The opportunities that the Jewish people had to learn Torah from Moshe, and the chance to perform the mitzvot was the greatest motivator of all. The rebuke would come later, but inspiring the people at first rather than chastising them, was the approach that Moshe took in his final weeks with the people.