How do presidents of the United States spend their last day as president? For at least four years, these men have been the most powerful people in the world; what did they do during their last hours in office? President George W. Bush spent the morning of January 20, 2009 making phone calls to outgoing senior staff thanking them for their hard work. Shortly before President Obama and his wife arrived at the White House, President Bush took one final walk around the South Lawn.
President Clinton spent his last few days saying his goodbyes as well as signing some controversial pardons. He also walked around the White House grounds taking in the view one last time and said goodbye to the White House staff.
President Reagan seemed eager to return to California. He came down to the Oval Office one last time and found it pretty much empty. The only thing left in the office was his desk. Everything else had been removed the night before. He checked the desk to ensure that the letter he had written to the incoming president was still there.
Colin Powell, his national security advisor, met Reagan in the Oval Office and reported that the world was quiet that day. After hearing Powell’s report Reagan reached into his pocket and removed the card with the nuclear codes; he asked Powell what he was supposed to do with it. Powell responded, “Sir, you’re still president. You need to hang on to that. We have a plan for that later this morning.”
Perhaps the most consequential final moment of an American leader was when George Washington bid farewell to his senior officers upon his resignation as commanding general of the Continental Army on December 4, 1783. Although Washington could have assumed dictatorial powers, he chose instead to return to civilian life. By this simple act he breathed life into the American experiment of a people’s government. With the following words he stepped off the stage of history (albeit temporarily as it would turn out). “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Upon hearing that Washington voluntarily retired, King George III of England said that if true, Washington “is indeed the greatest man in the world.”
However, none of these historical examples can compare with the description Midrash Tanchumah (V’etchanan: 6) gives us of Moshe’s final act. Realizing that his death was immanent and he had only a few more moments, Moshe focuses on doing the most important thing: he runs to Bnei Yisrael and blesses them. Too often Moshe found himself in a position of having to rebuke and chastise his people. Thus, he wanted to ensure that his last interaction with them would be an outpouring of love and concern.
The question is why. Of all the things he could have chosen to do, why did he choose to emphasize to Klal Yisrael how much he loved them? Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l (Chidushei Lev: Devarim, p.216) offers a penetrating insight into human nature that explains Moshe’s actions. Moshe’s life mission was to teach Bnei Yisrael Torah and ensure their commitment to a Torah way of life. To that end he was forced to rebuke them at various times to guide them on the path of righteousness. However, rebuke only works when the people hearing it are convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the person rebuking them is totally committed to their well-being. Only when the people receiving guidance and direction sense that the person speaking to them is motivated by love will they be fully receptive to the message.