V'Zot HaBracha(Deuteronomy 33-34)
Vezos HaBracha – Moses' Greatest Deed
The Torah concludes with a stirring eulogy for Moses, ending with praise for, “the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Israel1.” The Medrash, cited by Rashi, explains that the phrase, “before the eyes of all Israel” refers to Moses’ decision to break the two tablets that he had just received in front of the Jewish people. Why, of all Moses’ great deeds, does the Torah choose to single this one out at its finale as perhaps the greatest of them all?
The Ateres Mordechai offers a profound insight to answer this question2. Moses had invested great effort over many years in bringing the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt to the point of the Giving of the Torah, and now he had just spent 40 days without food or drink fending off the angels and securing the Tablets for the Jewish people. When he returned from the mountain and saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf he realized that they were not on the level to receive the Tablets and that he must destroy them. However, imagine what a test it must have been to forsake all that effort and energy that he had invested to get to this moment. He surely could have rationalized that although they did not deserve the Tablets now, perhaps things would change soon and it wasn’t necessary to destroy them right away. But Moshe did not do so; he showed great integrity and intellectual honesty to break the Tablets purely because that was the correct course of action.
Very often in life, we are placed in similar situations to that of Moses - we invest time or energy into something and then we are faced with the possibility that we have made a mistake and need to start again or that there has been a new turn of events that makes our original stand obsolete. There is a great temptation in such instances to dig our heels in and stand by our initial plan against our better judgment. It is very hard to admit that we are wrong or need to start again after putting in so much effort into something. And perhaps the most difficult aspect of knocking down what we have already built is that we are showing that we have made a mistake - it is extremely difficult for people to admit that their opinions, lifestyle or attitude is wrong.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz brings an example from the Books of the Prophets of how a person can become so set in his ways that he cannot change even when placed under the greatest pressure3. After the destruction of Jericho, Joshua placed a curse on anyone who would rebuild it. Many years later, in the time of King Achav, a man named Chiel decided to defy the curse and rebuild Jericho4. When he laid the first brick, his first-born died, and as he continued building his sons continued dying one by one until when he completed the city his youngest son also passed away. How can a person be so foolish to continue in a path that causes his misery?! Rav Shmueleviz answers that he was so convinced in the rightness of his actions that he could not admit that he was wrong and he preferred to bury all his sons over admitting that he was wrong!
In contrast the Talmud shows an example of the greatness involved in admitting one’s mistakes. Rabbi Shimon HaAmsoni used to explain every word ‘es’ in the Torah as providing a secondary meaning to the object mentioned5. For example, in the mitzvah of honoring parents, there is an ‘es’ from which he derived the inclusion of older siblings, and consequently a person must honor his elder sibling as well as his parents. However, when he came to the verse, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira” he was unable to find a secondary recipient of the fear that we must feel for God. His students asked him, “what will come of all the instances where you have explained the word ’es’”? He replied, “Just as I have been rewarded for expounding them, so shall I rewarded now for abandoning them.” Then Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the ’es’ in the verse teaches us that a person must fear God and also Torah scholars. The Alter of Kelm notes the greatness of Rabbi Shimon who did not hesitate to abandon the theory that he had held and developed throughout his life when he felt that he could no longer justify it. Moreover, he taught his students a priceless lesson - that his abandoning of his theory which was done in a moment was as great as all the investigating and explaining he had done all his life6!
This lesson is strongly connected to the day of Simchas Torah with which Vezos Habracha always coincides. We end the Torah and then immediately restart it again, reading the opening verses of Bereishis. This alludes to us that even though we have completed the whole Torah, we should not feel that we do not need to repeat it again. We can relearn it and develop new insights, sometimes even contradicting our present understanding and we should not feel embarrassed to acknowledge that we were wrong.
Rav Frand suggests that this idea is also alluded to in the marriage ceremony7. The custom is that the groom breaks a glass, and most commentators explain that this is a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. However, he notes that one commentator connects this custom to the breaking of the Tablets. Why do we need to be reminded of that event during a wedding? He answers that perhaps it is to teach the new couple that in order for their marriage to work, they must strive to emulate Moses’ actions in breaking the Tablets. In order for a marriage to work, both husband and wife must be willing to act with great honesty and admit their mistakes rather than stand on their pride. Both need to be prepared to let go of their preconceived notions and prejudices and strive for truth. These are not easy demands, but if we see that Moses was ready to break the most valuable thing in the world because it was the right thing to do, then we too can surely be prepared to make changes when it is clearly the God’s will.
1. Vezos HaBracha, 34:12.
2. Quoted by Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita, ‘Rabbi Frand on the Parsha - p.297.
3. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 47, p.200.
4. Melachim 1, 17:34.
5. Kiddushin, 57a.
6. Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, p.68.
7. Ibid, p.299.