Vaetchanan 5782 – The Transition to Moshe Rabbeinu

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

If we had to choose only one Torah portion to summarize the entire Torah, which would it be? We could make arguments in favor of the various portions, but we would have to consider Parashah Vaetchanan as a strong contender. In this week’s parashah, we find a compilation of the Torah’s “greatest hits,” both in law and narrative. It opens with Moses’ pleading unsuccessfully with God one more time about entering the promised land. This is followed by Moses’ reminder to the Israelites that they were an unruly bunch, grumbling and complaining along the way as they wandered through the wilderness. He tells them that they should be prepared for an imminent change of leadership as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. And he warns them to pay careful attention to the laws and rules that he has given to them and that they should not add anything or subtract anything from them because all of this teaching comes from the covenant made with God. We find a restatement of the 10 Commandments. We read the words of the Shema and V’ahavta – verses stating our belief in God’s unique oneness and instructing us how to love God by teaching the Torah to our children. The people are reminded to recall their redemption from slavery in the land of Egypt and are warned against turning to idols.

Moses warns them that when they have children and grandchildren and have been in the Promised Land for a long time, they will grow corrupt and do evil in the eyes of God. He tells them they will anger God. They will not endure long in the land but will be entirely be wiped out. God will scatter them among the nations, and they will be left few in number among the nations to which God will lead them. There, they will serve man-made gods. Then, in the distress that they will endure, they will return to God and listen to God’s voice. God will not forget the covenant he made with their forefathers.

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses reaches a new level of authority and wisdom. For the first time we hear him speak extensively in his own voice, rather than merely as the transmitter of God’s words to him. His grasp of vision and detail is faultless. He wants the people to understand that the laws God has commanded them, are for their good, not just God’s.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that over and above what Moses said in the last months of his life is what Moses did. He changed careers. He shifted his relationship with the people of Israel. No longer was he Moses the liberator, the lawgiver, the worker of miracles, the intermediary between the Israelites and God. He became Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher. He wanted to explain, expound, and make clear. He wanted the people to understand that Judaism is not a religion of mysteries which are intelligible only to a few. It is for the “inheritance of the entire congregation of Jacob.”

At this defining moment of his life, Moses understood that, although he would not be physically with the people when they entered the promised land, he could still be with them intellectually and emotionally if he gave them the teachings to take with them into the future. Moses became a pioneer of perhaps the single greatest contribution of Judaism to the concept of leadership: the idea of a teacher as hero.

Heroes are people who demonstrate courage in the field of battle. What Moses knew was that the most important battles are not military. They are spiritual, moral, cultural. A military victory shifts the pieces on a chessboard of history. A spiritual victory changes lives. A military victory is almost always short-lived. But spiritual victories can – if their lesson is not forgotten – last forever.

Not only does Moses become a teacher but he tells the entire people that they must become a nation of educators.

But the text acknowledges that it is not so easy to teach the Israelites in an effective and enduring way. Moses constantly calls for the Israelites attention –” listen! “- Shema-just like a teacher trying to call an unruly class to order. He seems anxious that what he is saying will go in one ear and out the other, or so he suggests by repeatedly encouraging Israel not to forget. Between the lines, there is frustration recognizable to anyone who knows what it is like to try and teach students who are incorrigible and do not want to learn what we want them to learn. Moses’ complaint about the people can be described in modern terms as” student resistance”, which is the refusal of students to learn what their teachers try to offer them. Sometime students will be overtly defiant, directly challenging the teacher’s authority, but often such resistance is passive or indirect – students will simply disengage or dropout. Teaching is supposed to be for their benefit, and yet in a confounding way, students often reject it.

Why do students sit in the back of the room and read and send text messages when their presence in a college classroom is supposedly of their own volition? Why don’t they read more? The answers to these questions are not straightforward. The students themselves – their background, their feelings, their interactions among themselves – are part of the answer, but so too is the performance of the teacher.

Our tradition remembers Moses as our teacher. The goal of the teacher is to struggle or grapple with the most effective way to leave an impression on one’s students. The teachers who make the largest impressions on one’s life challenge their thinking and their beliefs and push them to thinking critically out-of-the-box yet remain guiding and encouraging during the process. It was not just the material these teachers conveyed but the teachers, themselves, who made the impressions. Students have different types of intelligences, and successful teachers can instruct so the material resonates for all students.

A good teacher knows what to say to a weak student who, through great effort, has been better than expected, and to a gifted student who is at the top of the class but is still performing below his or her potential. The people who have had a decisive influence on our lives are almost always those we feel understood us in our own individuality. We were not, for them, a mere face in the crowd.

In an article by Rabbi Lazer Gurkov, he suggests that the teachers who had the most impact on him were the ones who showed the most kindness. Although you would think that if a teacher’s role is to teach, the most erudite scholar would have been the most memorable teacher. But that is not the case. The teachers who taught him the most were those who he was most willing to learn from. And those were the teachers who showed kindness. The erudite teacher will explain much but teach little.

Teachers shape society, handing the legacy of the past to those who build the future. That insight sustained Judaism for longer than any civilization and began with Moses in the last month of his life.

Despite Deuteronomy’s pessimism, its educational goals have been succeeded, beyond the author’s expectation. Students are still learning Torah thousands of years later. Understanding how this feat was accomplished requires studying the interaction of untold numbers of Torah teachers and not always compliant pupils. And the beginning of the story lies with Moses, the first in Jewish tradition to deal with how to teach students who resist being taught.