Great orations survive long after their utterer’s death because they convey a fundamental message in a concise manner that is timeless and its inspiration cuts between the planes of time. Lincoln at Gettysburg offered reason for the deaths of so many during what seemed an endless war: : “It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” In a more modern forum, Winston Churchill, a master of language and brevity of message intoned to a very anguished and beleaguered nation a brief phrase that he hoped would stir the hopes of his countrymen: –“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
In the course of his lifetime Moses had spoke very often to the Children of Israel, mostly to repeat God’s various pronouncements, or as a teacher on matters of law and theology. He also, much too frequently, was compelled to demonstrate anger and to express frustration, especially following on rebellion from within the ranks of the Israelites. The generation of the Exodus had been a difficult cohort to lead and their descendants were marginally better.
The previous forty-two years had been challenging ones for Moses. It is difficult to glean whether he felt a sense of accomplishment for having successfully brought the Israelites to the western border of the Promised Lands. The battles he led had gone fairly well and the various wars had been prosecuted with a minimum number of casualties; however, the battle to convince the Israelites of God’s gifts and God’s punishments was far from over and would prove a campaign without end. Moses’ last hours would not be filled with words of triumph, but with yet another plaintive plea.
Parsha Nitzavim is a very short chapter, only forty verses, but it contains some of the most dramatic statements in Sefer Devarim, delivered with an economy of words and expressing the essence of the Israelites’ faith: abide by the Covenant and receive the blessing of God; reject the Covenant and serve other gods, and suffer for your sin with a cursed existence. Simpler still: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed”.
Moses’ words were personal; for once he was not the messenger of God, but a simple dying man who had borne much disappointment yet convinced that his last gift to his people would instil hope in them and all future generations, and reflect the spirit of a man who had borne much suffering yet remained convinced of a hopeful future he would not share. “Choose life—if you and your offspring would live. By loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them had to dare his people to greatness”.
His promise of redemption has formed the basis for Israel’s hopes and dreams as they faced their many enemies; “then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.”
Moses at this critical moment in his people’s destiny relied only on words and clarity of purpose to convince his countrymen that their destiny remained, and would always remain in their relationship with God. Lincoln and Churchill’s words still inspire today, as do those carefully chosen by Moses, because they speak to eternal values – great leaders understand that. And Moses was a great leader.