This article on the portion of the week was previously published in 2018.
The portion Devarim takes place in the days leading up to Moses’ departure from this physical world. Therefore, in it, he gives over important lessons to both the Israelites and to us. In the beginning, he speaks about all the places the Israelites fell and all the mistakes they made before, and during, their forty years with him in the desert.
"The ego comes up with stories and complaints."
At one point, Moses tells them he realizes that he can’t be their leader or the person who helps them to spiritually change and grow. “I have come to see,” Moses tells them, “that you don’t want me as your leader. But more importantly, I can’t help you.” Rashi, the great kabbalist and commentator, explains this teaches us about Moses’ realization that the Israelites in the desert were what he called an apikores. An apikores is a combination of two words in Aramaic – apik and resen. It means, essentially, someone who does not want to be guided. Moses tells the Israelites that they don’t want him to be their leader, because they are, as Rashi calls them, apikores.
How did Moses know this about them? Because he knew that from the moment he woke up in the morning, the Israelites were trying to find things that were wrong with him. For example, if he came out of his tent earlier in the morning than usual, they would say it was because he was fighting with his wife, or alternately, if he walked out of his tent later in the day, they’d say he probably came out so late because he had been sitting at home spending time devising ways to do them harm. And it’s important for us to understand what drove them to find fault in Moses, because we all do the same thing.
There’s a section in the Midrash that tells the story of how Isaiah became the prophet. Isaiah was walking around his place of study when he heard the voice of the Creator, which said, “Who can we send, and who will go for us? Who can be the leader? Who can be a prophet? Who can be a person who will help others and help them change? I try to send people to help them. I sent the Prophet Michah, and they hit him. I sent the Prophet Amos, and they complained about the way he speaks.” We know, also, that Jeremiah was put in jail so that he couldn’t prophesize; he was humiliated, and eventually killed.
So, Isaiah hears this and tells the Creator, “I’m here, you can send me. I can be the prophet. I can be the leader. I can help them change.” The Creator tells Isaiah, “You don’t know these people. They are complainers. They don’t listen. Only if you accept upon yourself to be embarrassed, to be made a fool of, and to be beaten up can I send you to be My messenger and prophet.” And Isaiah accepts it. But, why is this? What is it about us, about humanity, that in any prophet, teacher, or guide we always find something wrong?
"If the complaints don’t come, it’s not real."
When the ego sees a prophet, a teacher, or a true guide - it can even be a friend who has the potential to influence us to change or diminish the power that the ego has upon us – the ego comes up with stories and complaints, because it knows that if we wind up listening to that person, its power will be diminished and it will have no more place. So, the ego starts creating these complaints that tell us not to listen… and this is, unfortunately, the true history of humanity.
What’s the first thing the ego does when a friend or teacher comes and tells us something that seems to have a level of criticism to it? It says, “Really? That person, with this problem and that problem, is going to advise me!?” The ego is very smart, and we need to remember that it isn’t conscious. But its first line of defense when it sees that there’s somebody coming at it who is going to greatly, or even slightly, influence its power - it could be a prophet, it could be a teacher, it could be your friend – is to come up with complaints. It is an unwavering spiritual truth: if somebody is going to try to help us change, our ego is going to come up with reasons why we shouldn’t listen to them. Therefore, conversely, if there is somebody – a teacher, a guide, a friend, etc. – in whom we haven’t found any reasons yet not to listen, it’s most likely because they are not asking us to do anything important.
It is a rule that if somebody has the potential to help us change and make a real connection to the Light of the Creator, the complaints are going to have to come. If it happened to Moses, it’s going to happen with anybody who is trying to influence us, as well. Which is, again, one of the most important lessons that Moses gives before he is about to leave this world. He’s saying, “We’ve been together for forty years, and I’ve failed. And the reason I’ve failed is that yes, you did take direction from me, but mostly you listened to the ego’s stories.” Clearly, nobody except for Korach and a few others completely disregarded Moses’ lessons, but what he was saying is that once we have shaved off part of a person’s ability to assist us, that person will never be able to fully or truly help us.
Moses tells them, and us, that if we are ever going to have somebody in our life who is going to be of real influence, we have to know that they are going to come with complaints, like they came for him, Amos, Michah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And we need to realize that if the complaints don’t come, it’s not real; however, when they do come, we need to fight against them, because the ego is going to create those stories and lies.
If we want to really accomplish what we came to this world to accomplish, we need to know the way the ego works: its first line of defense is to find what’s wrong with whoever is going to help us change and grow. Now that we know this, we can be aware of it, and can fight through the ego’s reasons and complaints. Then, we have the chance to allow that person to truly assist us in transforming.