וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
And Moses went and he spoke these words (Deuteronomy 31:1)
Our Master explained that here we find a correct indication for the custom that whoever discourses publicly and offers words of moral instruction (מוסר) should preface his discourse with words of halakhah before speaking words of aggadah and reproof. For the word "וַיֵּלֶךְ" (and he went) refers to law (הלכה) because halakhot are the paths of understanding. Thus, only after he went (וַיֵּלֶךְ) did Moses speak all these words (וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה), which were words of moral instruction. The reason for prefacing words of reproof and moral instruction with words of הלכה is based on what R. Akiva said:
I wonder if anyone in this generation is capable of offering reproof, because should he say: "take the splinter from between your teeth," they will respond: "take the beam from between your eyes" (in other words they will respond that the one who gives reproof is guilty of sins at least as bad as the sins committed by those to whom he is giving reproof).
However, if the one giving reproof is a scholar (תלמיד חכם) they cannot mention his sins, because the Sages say that if you see that a scholar has transgressed at night, do not suspect him of being a sinner the following day, because he has surely repented. And because a custom of Israel is legally binding (מנהג ישראל תורה) and emanates from a holy source, anyone who offers reproof should begin by speaking words of הלכה to show that he is a scholar. Thus, even if his audience may know of some misconduct on his part, they will assume that, being a scholar, he has repented of that misconduct, and they therefore will listen attentively to his reproof.
הֵן קָרְבוּ יָמֶיךָ לָמוּת
Behold the days approach when you must die) (Deuteronomy 31:14)
It is written in the Midrash Tanhuma: Moses said: "Master of the Universe, I praised you with the word "הֵן" as it is written (Deuteronomy 10:14): 'Behold the heaven and the heaven of heaven belong to the Lord your G-d' (הֵן לַה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם). Yet with the word "הֵן" You decree death upon me? The Holy One Blessed Be He replied to him: "A bad neighbor sees the gain but not the cost. Don't you remember that when I sent you to redeem them from Egypt you said to Me (Exodus 4:1): "behold, they will not believe me' (וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי). That is why "behold, the days approach when you must die" (הֵן קָרְבוּ יָמֶיךָ לָמוּת).
And our master explained this Midrash with knowledge and understanding. For the man who walked at the head of the people of Israel and led the flock of Joseph had been charged with two tasks. The first was to stand in the breach to abate the wrath and the anger when the Eternal became incensed and would destroy them or would do evil to them, by atoning for their sin with his prayers on their behalf and causing the Eternal to repent of the evil that He had thought to do to them. This, indeed, is what Moses the shepherd of Israel did when they despised the Almighty and defied Him, causing the Eternal to become incensed against them. So when the Eternal decided to kill them in the desert and destroy them, Moses beseeched the Eternal to forgive their sin and to withdraw His plan to do them evil. The second task of the leader was to lead them along the path on which they should walk and to reproach them continually for their conduct, to correct their traits, to cause them to reverence the Eternal and to love Him.
Jethro admonished Moses about both of these responsibilities when he said to him (Exodus 18:19): "you shall represent the people before G-d." Rashi comments: you shall be an agent and an advocate between them and the Omnipresent who will pray for them and will offer numerous supplications before G-d and will speak well of them.
And also this (Exodus 18:20): and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.
However if we reflect upon these two tasks, we shall see that they are at cross purposes to each other, so that whenever one becomes more prominent, the other must recede correspondingly. For only a man so exalted that he could ascend the ladder that rises to the house of the Almighty on high, who could set his dwelling place among the stars, would have the courage to approach before the Eternal to quell His burning wrath. And as the soul of this person ascends and soars toward the Eternal, his courage would increase correspondingly, so that his strength and dignity would enable him to stand as an iron pillar of defense so that the Eternal might not pour His wrath upon them. However, as he ascends, his words no longer draw the hearts of his listeners toward him and they will not listen to his reproof. Nor will they learn from his example, as they will say: "What have we to do with him, is he not so very far removed from us?" For one who gives reproof to the people will not strike the chords in the heart of his audience unless he is similar to them, is acquainted with their concerns and knows what they are seeking. Only then, can one administer an appropriate reproof.
This is clear from what the Eternal told Moses when he ascended on high to receive the two tablets of the covenant from the Eternal (Exodus 32:7): "Go down; for your people . . . have corrupted themselves." And the Sages interpreted this to mean: "Go down from your greatness." In other words: "You must lower yourself to become closer to them. Only then will it be within your power to lead them in the paths of honesty and righteousness." At the exalted level at which Moses then stood, the people would not listen to him or turn an attentive ear to his words. However, how could a man whose soul had not soared and was just like one of the people stand in the breach to beseech and supplicate the Eternal to abate His anger and abandon His wrath, and by virtue of what merit could he cry out to the Eternal?
Moses tried with all his might to perform both these tasks wholeheartedly. When he came down a second time from the mountain where G-d and truth had been revealed to him, he had become so great that his face shone. Moses therefore put a veil over his face to hide his face from the people, so that they should not understand how wondrous were his ways and would continue to accept instruction from him. But when he came before the Eternal to beg and supplicate for his people, he removed the veil and his honor was completely revealed in its glory and brilliance. And for his sake, the Eternal forgave them. However, at the end of his days, Moses became very much greater; his brow rose to the clouds and his head to the heavens, so that he was just short of an angel. He could no longer conceal his magnificence and his greatness from the people, for every eye that glimpsed him and everyone that saw him recognized the splendor of his greatness which was enormous. It was no longer in his power to control his people and to teach the wayward understanding for his voice was no longer heard. That is why the end of all flesh came upon him and his sun began to set while the spirit of the Eternal began to move his servant Joshua whose sun began to rise.
Now in the Midrash Tanhuma it is said about the verse (Numbers 23:9): "lo, a people dwelling alone" (הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן), that the letters "ה" and "נ" have no numerical mates. In other words, the letter "ה" with a numerical value of five is added to itself to equal ten and the letter "נ" with a numerical value of fifty is added to itself to equal one hundred, whereas all the other letters must be added to a different letter to equal either ten or one hundred. That is why the word "הֵן" (lo) is used in this context to signify that the people dwells alone as do the letters "ה" and "נ".
The words of the Midrash with which we began now shine forth as does the light of the sky. For the Eternal said to Moses: "Behold, the days approach when you must die" (הֵן קָרְבוּ יָמֶיךָ לָמוּת), because you are now in the category of "הֵן" In other words, you have been set apart, because you have become so great and the distance between you and the people is so vast that you cannot associate with them and be close to them. That is why the day of your death is approaching and your position must be given to another who is popular with the multitude of his brethren. Moses then asked with an agitated heart,
Master of the Universe, with the word "hein" I praised you. Do you now decree death upon me with the word "hein"? Am I not preeminent because, having ascended on high and wrestled mightily with G-d, I was exalted over all other human beings? Did I not become an interlocutor on behalf of Your people to cause Your wrath to recede so that You spared them for my sake? Did I not praise You with "הֵן" (as it is written): "Behold the heaven and the heaven of heaven belong to the Lord your G-d" (הֵן לַה' הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם) because You are separated from all the inhabitants of the earth and Your path is in heaven. So who can, better than I, ascend to You and come to the inner sanctum? (As, indeed, it is written in the Midrash that when Moses was prepared to die and entrusted his soul to the G-d of spirits, the Eternal roared like a lion (Psalms 94:16): "Who rises up for Me against the wicked?" Who will stand with Me in My time of trouble?)
Then the trustworthy G-d answered him: A bad neighbor sees the gain but not the cost. He sees only the crop of his neighbor but not his neighbor's expenditures. So do you see only what is on high and your own advantage, but not the great loss that results, because you can no longer reprove the people, and they will not listen to your words any more. Did you not say "behold the people of Israel have not listened to me"? And wasn't this because you were greatly separated from them and their ways were not your ways, so that you could not reprove them and keep them from rejecting your words? That is why they would not turn to listen you. Therefore, "behold, the days approach when you must die" - when someone else who will be able to lead them in righteousness and justice and to whose words of reproof they will listen, will take your place.
הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף
Assemble the people, men, women and little ones (Deuteronomy 31:12)
The Sages ask in the Talmud (Hagigah 3a): "Why did the little ones have to come?" And they answer "in order to grant reward to those that bring them." And it is an amazing wonder that the Eternal would command something for no purpose other than to provide a reward for those who perform the commandment. Moreover, the Scripture contradicts the words of the Gemara by saying (Deuteronomy 31:13): "and that their children, who have not known it, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your G-d."
It appears to our master that the words of the Sages and the words of the Scripture do in fact coincide, because the Sages said that listening to the holy words and the pure sayings will sanctify the thoughts of a child and will inculcate the proper spirit within him making it easy for him to understand wisdom and knowledge when he grows up. The Sages recount that R. Jose, when he was just an infant, was brought by his mother to the house of study. He was so inspired as a result that the Sages of his generation said about him "fortunate is she who bore him." That is the reward that the parents obtain for their effort, because when their children grow up and they begin to teach them from books about belief and understanding and they lead them beside still waters, the children, whose hearts have already been prepared in their youth, will quickly grasp the path of life, the Torah. This is what the Sages meant when they said that the commandment of "הַקְהֵל" was given to provide a reward to those who bring the children. The reward is at hand, because through the performance of this commandment, the children will be prepared to receive Torah and purity.
This is also the meaning of the Scripture, for one may ask why it is written first (Deuteronomy 31:12): "that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your G-d" (לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת ה' אֱלֹקֵיכֶם), and then (31:13) concerning the children, it says "may hear and learn to fear the Lord your G-d" (יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה, אֶת ה' אֱלֹקֵיכֶם). But according to what has been said we can well understand that, for the adults, listening is understanding. He therefore said "לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ". The parents should themselves listen and understand the Torah according to its plain meaning, for study leads to action, i.e., "to reverence the Lord your G-d." But concerning the children, listening denotes only the activity of hearing without study or understanding. Nevertheless, the activity of listening will later cause them to learn to reverence G-d, because the sound of the words of the Torah that they hear when they are young will later inspire them to reverence. That is why the Scripture says that they should simply hear the words as written. As a result of hearing the words they will learn to be reverent even if they did not understand what they heard. This reverence will prepare their hearts to understand when they become adults, and they will fear the Eternal all their days. This is the reward granted to those who bring them to hear the reading of the Torah.