Darash Moshe I
A selection of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's choice comments on the Torah.
By Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
These are the words . . .(Deuteronomy 1:1).
Rashi remarks that each of the places Moses mentioned in this verse is an allusion to one of the nations transgressions, but he did not want to state them explicitly so as not to embarrass the people. Very shortly, however (verses 22-39), Moses reproves the people at length over the incidents of the spies, and later (9:7-21) over the sin of the Golden Calf. Since he was going to chastise them openly for these incidents anyway, why in this instance was he so concerned to speak with such delicacy?
We can say that at the beginning of the parashah he was speaking not to the ones who had actually sinned (since that generation was no longer living) but rather to their children whoo were about to enter Eretz Yisrael and who were blameless. Therefore he utilized a mild tone and referred to their fathers sins only by allusion.
Later, however, he was repeating the reproofs he had given to the previous generation, which had to be forceful in order to impress upon them the seriousness of their sin and the severity of its punishment, as well as the atonement they had received for it.
In addressing the next generation which had not committed the sins, however, he did not have to speak that harshly. Merely alluding to the sins of their forefathers was enough to uproot any inclination they might have to transgress in the same manner and to remind them that they were not immune to sin.
Therefore, as long as the second generatoin had not uprooted the traits that brought about these sins, Moses reproved them as if they themselves had committed them. Because of their honor, however, he merely hinted at their fathers sins because, in reality, this generation was not guilty of committing them.
Along the same lines, I have suggested elsewhere that the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to Israel was given to remind us what terrible crimes humans are capable of committing. Only if we realize to what level we might sink can we protect ourselves (cf. our commentary on 25:17).
Alternately this passage teaches us that we should always attempt to give someone the mildest reproof that will acheive the desired effect. If merely alluding to his wrongdoings, rather than mentioning them openly, will make the desired impression, this is the best way. Indeed, looking at or even hearing of any kind of sinful behavior should be avoided whenever possible, so as not to awaken us to the possibility of such behavior.
For this reason the Sages said that someone who sees a suspected adulteress undergoing the sotah procedure should take a vow to abstain from wine. Even though he sees her in the midst of a degrading punishment, the Sages knew how strong the yetzer hara is and were concerned that knowledge of her sin might make more of an impression than the punishment one sees her receiving. Therefore they advised one to take a vow (a very serious step which they otherwise cautioned against) to protect himself from the powerful temptation to follow her example.
Similarly, the Sages taught (Yoma 70a) that watching the performance of a mitzvah is in itself a mitzvah. From this we may infer the converse, that it is forbidden to watch a sin being done, since the more people who see it, the greater is the desecration of Hashems Name caused by the sin itself.
Thus, even when there is a need to reprove a sinner, it is best to avoid mentioning the sin itself if the desired effect can be achieved simply by hinting at it, as Moses did by mentioning the place where the sins had been committed. However, this applies only if the sinner is aware of his error and sinned only because he was too weak to resist temptation; then, only a slight reminder should suffice to make him regret his sin and seek ways to protect himself from falling into the same trap again. It does not matter when the reproof is given, since the sinner already knows that what he did was wrong and is likely to regret it. This is why Moses waited until just before his death to reprove the people, after he had already given them the land on the other side of the Jordan River and they could see that his intention was solely for their well-being; then, they were most likely to accept his chastisement.
However, if we see that indirect reproof will not accomplish its purpose, then we must speak openly. This is why Moses spoke so harshly and at such length about the spies and the Golden Calf, because he knew that the milder hints which had sufficed for the other sins would not impress upon the people the seriousness of failing to trust Hashem (as they did by sending the spies) or of thinking that molten images could serve as intermediaries to bring them closer to Hashem.