Moses Rewrites History

Why does Moses change his story as he retells it at the end of his life?

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The book of Deuteronomy, dramatically set just outside the land of Canaan, is comprised of a series of farewell addresses delivered by Moses as he prepares to die, forever barred from the Promised Land. Unlike the previous four books of the Torah, which are narrated in the third person, Deuteronomy is narrated almost entirely in the first person, the "I" of Moses persistently addressing a "you." However, the "you" that Moses addresses is not always the same: sometimes it refers to all the Israelites who left Egypt, none of whom is still alive to hear these final words; other times it refers to their children, the generation of the wilderness, those now listening to Moses; still other times, it refers to a small group of Israelites, such as the twelve scouts, the two-and-a-half tribes who have chosen to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, or just Joshua and Caleb.

open notebookIn fact, the word "you" punctuates this parashah like a drumbeat, appearing more than 100 times in slightly more than 100 verses, plus many other instances if the imperative verb form is included. Throughout, Moses primarily focuses on his I-You relationship with the people; yet the relationship is characterized more by conflict and alienation than by intimacy. As he recalls their journey, trying to make sense of the past forty years, he rewrites history, blaming the people for proposing that he send scouts to the land (an action commanded by God in Numbers 13:2) and for provoking him into declaring judicial authority (an idea suggested by his father-in-law, Jethro in Exodus 18:17-23). Worst of all, Moses blames the children for the sins of their parents. Although it is the slave generation who has disappointed him, it is the next generation who now suffers Moses' rancor and regret.  

Counter-Transference

Despite the fact that Deuteronomy is an ancient book, the insights revealed in this parashah resonate with our modern ideas about human psychology. Contemporary psychologists describe a process known as counter-transference, whereby a therapist projects onto her patients certain conflicts still unresolved within her own life story. Parents, too, can be guilty of such unconscious projection, ascribing to their children their own youthful errors and defeats.

Therefore, we can read this first farewell speech as the presentation of a leader who engages in a kind of counter-transference when he reflects back to the people what has transpired between him and them over the past four decades. Standing before them now on the threshold of death, he wonders: What has happened to this people that I led out of slavery? What has happened to our shared resolve? What has happened to me, who was to serve as God's emissary and representative? Why have the people doomed me through their lack of faith, their ingratitude, their waywardness--to die without enjoying God's promise?

We can see in Moses' flawed recollections and chastisement of the people a final attempt to reshape his life story so as to justify the past actions of this metaphoric parent.

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Ellen Frankel is the CEO of the Jewish Publication Society. She wrote The Five Books of Miriam, a compelling retelling and woman's commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah. In addition to her books, Frankel is the author of numerous stories, essays and reviews.