The first Pasuk of Parashat Devarim begins with the words, “Eileh HaDevarim,” “These are the words” (Devarim 1:1). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Eileh HaDevarim), commenting on these words, states, “SheHein Divrei Tochachot,” that these are words of rebuke. This does indeed fit with the context of the rest of the Parashah, where Moshe rebukes Bnei Yisrael. The rest of the Pasuk, however, is very strange. Translated literally, it states the following: “Moshe spoke to all Israel on this side of the Yardein in the wilderness, in the Aravah opposite the Yam Suf, between Paran, and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzeirot, and Di Zahav.” What is the purpose of the list of all of these names of places?
Ibn Ezra takes it at face value, suggesting that these are actually places where Moshe spoke to the Jewish people. Rashi, however, takes the names of these places very differently. He comments that that these locations are not places where Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael, but rather, places he spoke to them about. This presents a problem, however, because as Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai points out, some of these places are found nowhere else in Tanach, most notably Tofel and Lavan, as well as Di Zahav. Rashi concludes that these so-called places are not actually places at all; rather, they refer to events. For example, Chatzeirot is a reference to the rebellion of Korach, and Paran is the place from where the Meraglim were sent; Tofel and Lavan refers to their complaints about the Man, and Dizahav refers to the Eigel HaZahav, the golden calf. But why not just rebuke them outright? Rashi answers, “Mipnei Kevodan Shel Yisrael,” “Because of the honor of the nation of Israel.”
However, another problem emerges, as the rest of the Parashah presents a detailed list of our sins! The Sifrei provides a different reason for his veiling the rebuke initially. It quotes the Mashal of a child who sees something shiny in the dirt, but when he picks it up, it turns out to be a glowing ember. The next time he sees something shiny, he will hesitate to pick it up. In the same way, the last time Moshe had criticized the nation, he was told that he was going to die in the Midbar. He was hesitant to criticize them here, and so he veiled it. In the rest of the Parashah, however, he rebukes them openly, because he believed it to be the most opportune time. What made this time any different? When one is rebuked by another, any time he sees the person who pointed out his flaws, he feels shame, and maybe even resentment. He knew that he would die soon, and if he rebuked them now, they would no longer have to look at him and feel embarrassed. Both of these interpretations offer insight into the true depth of Moshe's character. Not only was he so humble that he cared for the feelings of every member of Bnei Yisrael, but even while he was rebuking them he was trying to teach them the lessons of the Torah.
The Pasuk in Parashat Kedoshim (VaYikra 19:17) states, “Hochei’ach Tochi’ach Et Amitecha, VeLo Tisa Alav Cheit,” “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VeLo Tisa Alav Cheit) comments that this means you should rebuke your friend, but not embarrass him, or sin will fall upon you. Moshe was teaching them the correct way to rebuke, leading by example. Such a demonstration of being careful to observe the Mitzvot is a fitting beginning for the Sefer often called the Mishneh Torah.