A Message for Parashat Devarim 2018
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Sefer Devarim presents Moshe’s final mission as the leader of Am Yisrael. Understanding that he would soon die and that the nation would then enter the Land of Israel, he prepared them for a future without him. Instead of speaking about the future challenges that lay ahead, however, Moshe turned to the past and recounted their forty years of shared experiences in the midbar.
Am Yisrael stood on the brinks of a historic transition into an independent homeland. They were in dire need of vision for the future. Why, then, did Moshe focus primarily on their past history instead of on the future that lay ahead?
I believe that Moshe based his decision upon a deep understanding of the people’s mindset at that time. Am Yisrael had suspended all prospective thinking over the course of their forty-year journey in the wilderness. In a state of constant search for signs from above – “By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward” (Bemidbar 9:18) – the people relinquished any control over their future. Moshe needed to shift the people’s collective consciousness by redirecting the trajectory of their thought from the present to the future. But how could he do so?
Theoretical biologists refer to our ability to learn via stimulus and response as a “remembered present.” (For example: After touching the oven and burning my hand I understand that I shouldn’t touch the oven again). A “remembered future,” however, is when we retain memory traces even when the stimulus is no longer present. (For example: After touching the oven and burning my hand, I now understand that it is harmful to touch anything boiling hot in the future).  Following two centuries of slavery and several more decades of blind wanderings in the desert, Am Yisrael was stuck in a state of “remembered present.” They were trained to think in the present and could not even fathom planning for the future. Moshe understood, however, that “future thinking” begins with the ability to draw insights from the past. And so, he began to teach them their history.
Viewing Sefer Devarim through the lenses of Moshe’s mission to build an independently future-thinking nation, we may better understand several of his surprising statements in our parashah.
At the beginning of his talk to the people, Moshe remembered:
And I said to you at that time, saying, “I cannot carry you by myself…Oh, how can I carry by myself your trouble and your burden and your disputing? Get you wise and understanding and knowing men according to your tribes, and I shall set them at your head.” And you answered me and said, “The thing that you have spoken is good to do.” (Devarim 1:9-14)
Moshe’s retelling of the episode of the judges’ appointments differs from its earlier description in the Torah. In Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:13-26), it was Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro who suggested that he appoint judges, after which Moshe forced the system onto the nation. In Moshe’s retelling at this time, however, it was he who realized his inability to lead alone and then turned to the nation for their approval of the new judicial system.
Moshe made a similar change in his reminiscence of the story of the meragelim:
“And you came forward to me, all of you, and you said: ‘Let us send men before us that they probe the land for us and bring back word to us of the way on which we should go up and the towns into which we should come.’ And the thing was good in my eyes, and I took from you twelve men, one man for each tribe. (Devarim 1:22-3)
Whereas Parashat Shelah (Bemidbar 13-14) presented the meragelim’s mission as God’s command, Moshe now remembered it differently. He recounted the people’s self-insight and consultation with him regarding the plan – “And you came forward to me,” and his own approval – “And the thing was good in my eyes.”
Prominent Jewish thinker Micha Goodman suggested that Moshe was driven by a shared motive in each of these deliberate “rewritings.” He was aware of his central role in the nation’s history, and now wished to diminish it. Moshe rebranded his leadership role from being the sole conveyor of God’s will to the sensitive figure who was attentive to the heartbeat of the nation. By placing the people at the focus of past decisions, Moshe empowered them to courageously tackle future decisions by learning from the strengths of their past.
Indeed, leadership experts consistently stress the importance of empowering the people to lead. Consider, for example, the description of several leadership gurus:
Authentic leaders recognize that leadership is not about their success or about getting loyal subordinates to follow them. They know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leaders at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead.
Best-selling author and billionaire Ray Dalio similarly explained that authoritarian managers don’t develop subordinates, which means that those who report to them stay dependent. And systems built upon dependency are weak, as they often collapse when the constituents grow tired of silent obedience. Dalio warned: “When you are the only one thinking, the results will suffer.”
As he pondered the future of a nation that depended upon his central role for so many years, Moshe realized that his absence would leave them powerless. He knew that in order to transition the people from their “present-thinking” consciousness to one of future perspective he needed to first build their sense of history. Moshe thus began teaching them their history while carefully tweaking the details in order to decentralize himself and empower the people. Informed of a history of self-strength, the people could now march into the future with confidence.