The first pasuk of parashas Devarim lists a whole string of place names, seemingly given as the location that Moshe Rabbeinu delivered his final speech to the Jewish people. However, since the combination of places doesn't make much logical sense, Rashi, following the lead of Targum Onkelos, interprets the place names as veiled references to the various sins that Bnei Yisrael committed throughout their forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness. All the major sins are listed, including the rebellion of Korach, the sin at Shittim, the complaints at the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds), the complaint about the Mann, the sin of the Golden Calf, etc.

Still ... "a verse never loses its plain meaning," and this verse sounds like it's describing the place where the Jews were when Moshe delivered his final speech. But how can that be? All these different places being referenced couldn't possibly be located at "Ever Hayarden," the eastern side of the Jordan, where we know for a fact that they were actually encamped.

In a sense, though ... they were. As Dovid Hamelech says in Tehillim (51:5), "v'chatasi negdi samid, and my sins are always before me." Moshe was telling Bnei Yisrael, "Never forget these sins you committed. Even if the instigators have already been punished, even if you, the survivors, have done teshuvah (repented) for your guilt by association and tacit acceptance of these sins ... nevertheless, don't ever forget them." And why? Not to depress us or crush our spirits. The purpose is to keep us humble.

Remembering our past sins is a crucial tool to develop and maintain a sense of humility. No matter how great we become, no matter what we ultimately accomplish with our lives, we always need to remember how spiritually fragile we really are. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:4), "Don't trust yourself until the day you die." History is replete with cases of great people who fell from their lofty perch at the end of their lives. Perhaps that is why, at the end of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu told Bnei Yisrael: "Wherever you are, carry with you the places and circumstances in which you sinned. You may be physically located in a particular place, but throughout your lives you should always simultaneously be mentally located in all these other places." Because ultimately, the key to avoiding a spiritual downfall is simply to keep in mind that it's always possible.

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