In the final verses of Parashat Vayelekh, we read that Moshe, just prior to his death, commanded the Leviyim to place the Torah scroll he had just written alongside the ark, as an eternal testament of God’s covenant with Am Yisrael. Moshe explained that he had reason to suspect that Benei Yisrael would abandon God after his death, and when this happens, the Torah would bear witness to God’s having warned the people of the dire consequences of their abandonment of the covenant. He says, “After all, already during my lifetime you have betrayed the Lord, and also after my death” (31:27). Moshe appears to be telling the people that if they betrayed God during his lifetime, when he was leading and guiding them, then certainly they are likely to betray God after his passing.
The Maharsha (Sanhedrin 37a) raises the question of why Benei Yisrael’s periods of failure during Moshe’s lifetime indicated a high likelihood of similar periods of spiritual regression after his death. After all, the Gemara (there in Sanhedrin) tells of a group of people who were influenced by a spiritual leader, and repented specifically after his death. The story involves a group of delinquents who lived in Rabbi Zeira’s neighborhood. Rabbi Zeira, despite opposition by his rabbinical colleagues, befriended these people in an effort to exert a positive influence on them. After he passed away, the Gemara tells, the wayward group reflected on the repercussions of his death. During his lifetime, they realized, he had prayed on their behalf, pleading their case before the Almighty, which he could no longer do once he left this world. This realization made them feel vulnerable, and they were inspired to repent. In this instance, then, the rabbi’s passing inspired repentance and a greater commitment to act properly. Why, then, did Moshe assume that his death would leave the people more spiritually fragile, and especially prone to failure?
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in his Ta’am Va-da’at, answers the Maharsha’s question by distinguishing between different kinds of sinners. In this verse in Parashat Vayelekh, Moshe mentions specifically the people’s obstinacy: “I know your rebelliousness, and your stiff neck…” Moshe points to the people’s disobedience and unwillingness to yield to his authority. When this is a person’s flaw, then he is indeed more prone to failure after the authority figure’s passing. If he refused to submit to the figure’s authority and follow his instructions when he was alive, he is far more likely to disobey after that figure is gone and no longer able to exert any authority. But in the story told by the Gemara, Rav Sternbuch suggests, the source of these sinners’ flaw was not a disregard for authority, but rather a lack of restraint. These people acted inappropriately because they followed their base instincts, and not because they resisted the authority of Torah law and refused to yield. This flaw can be overcome by fear of the repercussions of sin, which these sinners began to experience with the passing of Rabbi Zeira. This is far different from Moshe’s concern, that the people’s tendency to resist his authority would strengthen after his death.