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Moses and the Twice-Told Tale

  • Moses and the Twice-Told Tale

    D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22
D'var Torah By: 

For a guy who described himself to God at the Burning Bush as "slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10), it seems that Moses now has an awful lot to say. Honestly, can you blame him? He'd spent forty years in the wilderness with a bunch of kvetchers who worship golden idols and constantly idealize their life of hard servitude in Egypt. Now that they are so close to the Promised Land—a land that Moses will not live to enter—Moses gets his final say. Virtually the entire Book of Deuteronomy is his farewell discourse to the people he has tried so hard to lead.

The book actually has two common names, one derived from Hebrew and the other from Greek. The Hebrew, Sefer D'varim, refers to its first words: Eleh ha-d'varim, "These are the words [that Moses addressed to all Israel]" (Deuteronomy1:1). Derived from the Greek translation for Mishneh Torah, Deuteronomium means "second law" and refers to the fact that Moses is repeating the Exodus/Numbers narrative.

Ah, but not quite. Indeed, the two names together tell us something important we'll need to keep in mind as we embark on this literary journey: These d'varim are not a restatement, but rather Moses' unique retelling of the wilderness saga.

Take the appointment of tribal magistrates to assist Moses in his judicial burden. In the original rendering of the story (Exodus 18:13-27), the whole idea is given to Moses by his non-Israelite father-in-law Jethro, immediately before the Revelation at Sinai. In Moses' retelling, however (Deuteronomy 1:9-18), Moses takes credit for the idea himself and places it after the Revelation—that is, after Jethro's departure from the camp.

Or take the mission of the twelve scouts, the advance guard that would bring the people back a picture of the Land and its bounty. In the original story (Numbers 13), God directs Moses to send the scouting party with a somewhat noncommittal sh'lach l'cha, "send for yourself," perhaps a rebuke to Moses for needing the reassurance of the scouts.

As it happens, that plan goes horribly wrong when ten of the twelve scouts return with frightening stories of fortified cities and dangerous giants. Here (Deuteronomy 1:22-33), however, Moses lays the blame at the feet of the people: first for demanding the advance patrol because of their lack of faith in God's promise; and then for refusing to move forward even with the scouts' description of "a good land that the Eternal our God is giving to us" (Deuteronomy 1:25)—omitting all mention of the negative account that sent the people cowering.

These two early illustrations set the tone for the entire book: Moses will frequently simplify complexities and complications, resulting in a narrative in which Moses is God's most faithful and obedient servant, and the people are the faithless bane of his existence.

Nachmanides, the thirteenth century Spanish Sage, euphemistically remarked that Moses' rendition of this twice-told tale was designed l'hosif bahen bi'ur, "to add clarity and explanation," and to make sure that the entirety of the generation that would enter the Land heard it—just as the entirety of the Exodus generation experienced Sinai. Others are rather less polite in their assessments: The notion that eleh ha-d'varim addressed to the entire nation is inherently a rebuke of the entire nation is presumed by Torah commentators from Rashi (eleventh century, France) to the Hatam Sofer1 (eighteenth-nineteenth century, Hungary).

Still, this loquacious Moses is not so arrogant as to put himself in God's place. Indeed, the Yalkut Shimoni, the thirteenth century midrashic compilation on the entire Jewish Bible, points out that Moses—like the scolding prophet Jeremiah—references God when consoling the people but takes ownership of his words when admonishing them.

So as Moses takes the stage in this first parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy, also called D'varim, he moves purposefully through his version of the past forty years of exodus and wandering. But let's keep in mind that he may never have intended this as subterfuge. Perhaps he remembers that things happened this way because he needs to remember that things happened this way. And he needs to remember that things happened this way because, he believes, his legacy depends on it.

We moderns understand a lot more now about how the mind and memory work. Senior living facilities increasingly incorporate "memory units" for those suffering from various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's. Staff members take particular care to teach family members patience as their loved ones confuse Friday with Tuesday, forget they had oatmeal and not eggs for breakfast, or insist they can't find the sweater they are already wearing. Cherished family memories dim or merge or morph into something unrecognizable to anyone else but the person who is mightily struggling to remember how old she is.

At the same time, as family members prepare to say farewell to a loved one, their own memories often adjust as well, often shuffling the deck so that stories of love take precedence over stories of rebuke.

So sometimes we do misremember. But sometimes we adjust our memories—without even realizing it—to fit what we need them to be. This may well be Moses' emotional need as he nears the end of his life.

The Rabbis would later create a vision of an ailing and insecure Moses spirited off by God to the future, so that he would know that his legacy was secure and die in peace. But this Moses of Deuteronomy—aging and tired—did not have that luxury. People often remember best what they remember last. And Moses clearly wants his last words to leave an imprint.

1. Quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 3, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1996], p. 168)

Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained in 1999.

Torah as Trial and Transformation
Davar Acher By: 
Geoffrey Dennis

Unlike Rabbi Korotkin, I am not surprised that Moses is more loquacious at the end of his term than at the beginning; after all, it is written, "the Tree of Life [Torah] heals the tongue" (Proverbs 15:4). Nevertheless, her insights into memory are spot on.

Without disagreeing, I take two other lessons from Moses' retelling/revision of the stories, and in some cases, the mitzvot from years earlier. First, the "second law" shows us that very few of us are first-trial learners. Rather, we must constantly revisit these tales and instructions in order to internalize them. But the fact that we have to constantly repeat and renew our efforts to master these teachings should not cause us to despair. Rather, ideally, we should move through our Jewish life as if we are traveling through a spiral; returning, yes, to the place we started, but having progressed a little with each cycle. This is what the delightfully named Rabbi Bag Bag meant when he said, "Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it" ( Pirke Avot 5.22).1 It contains your whole life.

The second lesson is to be found in the revisions that have occurred between Exodus and Deuteronomy. Moses is already showing us the Jewish way of reading the sacred word—through interpretation. The "word" (davar, that is, Torah) is not inert, nor is it immutable. It is, instead, in dialogue with those who read it, apply it, and live it. The Torah changes meaning as we use it. What was seemingly self-evident to the Israelites forty years earlier reveals new, different implications now. So it was for Moses, so it is for us. We are most authentic Jewishly when we read the Torah in the light of the here and now, seeking its application in the context of our own needs.

1. Pirke Avot 5:22 in Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds. and trans., Pirke Avot (NY: UAHC, 1993), p. 89

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis was ordained at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, and is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. He teaches about the Bible, Kabbalah, and the Modern State of Israel at the University of North Texas.

7/25/2015
Reference Materials: 

D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062