The opening verse of Parashat Devarim provides the geographic context of Moshe’s final series of addresses to Benei Yisrael, specifying the precise location where he spoke to them. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 793) explains the purpose of this detailed information by way of an analogy to an elderly man who, realizing that his end is drawing near, summons a scribe to write his last will and testament. Before the scribe begins writing, he asks the elderly man, at the inheritors’ behest, a number of questions to ascertain proper mental functioning. He asked him to identify his children in the room and the geographic location of his home, and once the man answered the questions correctly, the scribe felt confident that his client’s instructions were issued with a clear mind and with his mental faculties fully intact.
Similarly, the Midrash explains, as Moshe prepared to deliver these addresses to Benei Yisrael, which include sharp criticism for the mistakes they made over the course of the forty years of travel through the wilderness, he first needed to affirm his state of mental clarity. He therefore identified the details of where the people were situated, and the time it took to journey from Egypt to their current location, making it clear that his mental faculties were fully functioning.
It has been suggested that on a deeper level, the Midrash’s comments convey an important lesson about criticism and critical commentary. Namely, one is qualified to offer criticism only if he is certain that he properly understands the situation which he addresses, as well as the broader context. Just as Moshe could not begin criticizing the people until he demonstrated detailed knowledge of where they were and how they got there, similarly, we should not offer criticism of people or communities before ensuring that we properly understand their situation and background. Moshe, who led the people in Egypt and throughout their sojourn through the wilderness until their encampment on the banks of the Jordan River, had thorough knowledge of their situation, and was thus qualified to express criticism. We, however, often feel impelled to offer criticism without extensive knowledge or a proper understanding of the situation we wish to address. The Midrash perhaps seeks to alert us to the need to reserve judgment and withhold critical remarks until we are certain that we know all the facts and clearly understand the broader framework of that of which we disapprove. Until we can be certain of our accurate knowledge and understanding, we are not qualified to offer criticism, and any such remarks would be not only unhelpful, but damaging and detrimental.