In Moshe’s parting-speech that he delivered to the Children of Israel on his dying day, he tells the people that he already prophetically knows what is going to happen. “After I die, you will become [religiously and morally] corrupted and you will stray from the path that I have commanded you…” (Devarim 31:29). This verse implies that as a result of the spiritual void left due to the absence of Moshe’s positive and inspiring influence and presence, the people would not be able to maintain their fidelity to the Torah. This, however, seems to contradict the historical account found in the Book of Judges(2:7) which states “and the people served the Lord all the days of Yehoshua (Joshua).” Yehoshua led the Jewish people during the period immediately following Moshe’s death. If the people had become religiously and morally corrupted after Moshe’s death, it would certainly not be possible to say about them that they were “serving the Lord.” Did the people somehow exceed Moshe’s expectation of how they would behave and maintain their virtue? Do we have to choose between Moshe’s prophecy or the account in the Book of Judges?
Rashi (1040 – 1105) in his Biblical commentary essentially chooses the account in the Book of Judges – and is forced to reinterpret Moshe’s prophecy in Devarim. He writes that the prophecy teaches (of all things!) a beautiful lesson for educators:
“From here we derive that a person must consider his student to be as precious to him as his own body. For as long as Yehoshua [Moshe’s student] was alive, Moshe looked at it as if he [himself] was still alive.”
When the people eventually did stray from the Torah after Yehoshua’s death, Moshe looked at it as if it happened immediately after his own death – since he still considered himself to be alive in some sense until that time.
Even if Rashi has resolved the contradiction between the two verses, a difficulty still remains. The most obvious explanation of why the people would stray after Moshe’s death, as mentioned above, is that it would result from the void left by Moshe’s great presence. Although Moshe looked at himself as “alive” as long as Yehoshua was alive, the people did not share that perspective. If so, how did the people hold out until after Yehoshua died, and what significance did his death have that it enabled or precipitated their failure? Or, perhaps, there were other reasons that they strayed that were completely unrelated to both his and Moshe’s death.
If we assume that the people’s nosedive was linked to Yehoshua’s death, the Torah is teaching a powerful lesson regarding the rebbe-talmid teacher-student relationship. Even if the people related to Yehoshua the student differently in some ways than they did to Moshe the teacher, Yehoshua’s presence still apparently had enough of an impact to keep the people off the wrong path. Whether that was because of the student’s personality itself or merely because he reminded the people of his great teacher, the investment that Moshe had made in his student – his precious student – paid off. If we believe in and invest in the potential of our students, and view them as precious and even as extensions of ourselves in some way, the result can be truly inspiring with wide-reaching impact.