Throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy, Moses is giving what is in essence his last will and testament. He knows he will not be joining the Israelites into the Promised Land, he knows that he does not have long to live. We have a tradition, taught in the Midrash (an early rabbinic commentary on the Bible):
“Said R. Shimon, Happy are those righteous persons who do not pass from the world without giving instruction to their children after them in matters of Torah; for thus we find that Abraham did not pass from the world without instructing his sons and his household to follow God’s ways…. And thus Isaac instructed Jacob…. And Jacob instructed his sons… And David, King of Israel instructed Solomon his son…. And so too Moshe Rabbenu [“our teacher”] did not pass from the world before admonishing Israel for the transgressions they committed and instructing them to observe God’s mitzvot, as it says, ‘These are the words [the opening words of the book of Deuteronomy],’ etc.”
This idea of giving an ethical will is certainly familiar and understandable. We would want the next generation to receive a set of instructions, or fundamental lessons. Yet, Moses is not simply giving his last will and testament. He is recapping the entire journey he had with the Israelites. Why not just simply state the final lesson?
That answer is given in the Shema, which we will read this week.
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם
“And you should sit down with your children and speak to them…”
The biggest success of our people is not the instructions and traditions we pass on in our final moments, but the way we live those acts and traditions with our families and communities on an ongoing basis. An ethical will is not effective if it is not accompanied by a lifetime of experience. Otherwise, it’s just a stranger giving strange advice about foreign customs, rituals and values. Moses was with these people for 40 years in the desert. He crossed the Red Sea with them, he stood at Mt Sinai with them and interceded on their behalf with God on numerous occasions. He was a constant presence. Only then, is he able to pass on his wisdom.
For those we wish to impart something for the next generation, be present with them, speak to them and experience life together. Don’t wait until your last will and testament to pass along something. Live it with them, together. Make the entire journey of life a powerful lesson in living together, in dialogue and relationship.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth