In building relationships between people, a rhetorical question can draw the other close or it can stun them into silence. As a parent, rhetorical questions are often punitive expressions of uncertainty to the child. “Did you do that?” can either be a request for accountability or an attempt to shock the child into awareness. Rhetorical questions have an implicit power dynamic that can often occlude a connection, even in the attempt to clarify a shared experience.
In the final episodes of the Torah that we read this week, Moshe begins by recalling the 40 year journey that led the people to this moment. He asks, “How can I bear the trouble of you, and your burden, and your bickering?” (Deut. 1:12) The use of a question by Moshe here should not be understated. We could simply resolve that Moshe is a tired leader, frustrated by the years of the people's struggle and defiance. Angered and dismayed, he simply asks the people something he already knows the answer to. Since this expression has been heard before, especially while the Israelites wandered in the desert, the question is more than an expression of exhaustion. Moshe has typified the people here in a way that will persist throughout the generations. The Jewish people are ‘stiff-necked.’ Even their leader thinks so!
And still, there is a deeper message to the question and it’s untimely expression as Moshe inspires the people to enter the Promised Land. Moshe might have begun his epic tale with praise, something like, "Look how far we have come!" Then, he could have descended into criticism, as a reflection that epic journeys are never easy. Hopefully, he would then return to the promise, that the people's commitment deserves a reward.
Rather, the entire narrative of preparation to enter the land begins with this critique. While the sobriety of the moment might dissuade the listeners (and us, the readers), there is something so instructive in Moshe’s capitulations. The characterization of the stubborn, recalcitrant people is not simply an indictment of their being. It is the powerful and instructive framing of their incredible capacity to transcend their own negativity. In other words, stubbornness can be a tool for positive change.
Consider this: The generation that fled Pharaoh and Egypt were incapable of envisioning a Promised Land. Their spite and disbelief was genuinely more than any one leader ought to carry alone. Meanwhile, they are instilling in their children both the promise of a brighter future and the horror of their afflictions. Ambivalence is transmitted, even vicariously, from one generation to the next. Moshe’s account of this challenging behavior to the new generation about to enter the land is more than a cautionary tale. This question defines the relationship between leader and people, and even between people and their God. This nation is never meant to enter promised lands complacent and blindly obedient. The very quality that brings anger and frustration to the leader, becomes the cornerstone of the very identity that will strengthen them and enable them to endure in the Land for many generations to come.
Ironically, where he has complained of his incapacity to lead the people, Moshe seems quite capable by the end of the story. Perhaps Moshe has a touch of stubbornness himself?