Moses Rewrites History

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

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

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 12 scouts, the two-and-a-half tribes who have chosen to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, or just Joshua and Caleb.

In fact, the word “you” punctuates this Torah portion 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 40 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.


Despite the fact that Deuteronomy is an ancient book, the insights revealed in this Torah portion 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.

Shedding New Light on the Wicked Child

Each year at the Passover seder, we Jews re-enact a similar drama, warning the next generation not to act the part of the rasha, the wicked child, in the Haggadah‘s parable of the Four Children. If we look closely at this exchange between the parent and the wicked child, we can hear in the former’s rebuke of the latter echoes of what we hear in this parsha. As some versions of the Haggadah phrase the dialogue: “The wicked child asks: ‘What is this service to you?’ … And because these children exclude themselves from the community, you should chastise them, saying: ‘Because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ ‘For me’ and not ‘for them,’ for had they been there, they would not have been redeemed.” This is a painful text for many Jews. Who among us does not know a contrary child, perhaps our own, who feels so alienated from Judaism that she is willing to be excluded from the community?

In order to truly understand what this vignette in fact conveys, we need to probe further. When we look up the original context of the wicked child’s question (Exodus 12:26), we discover that the Rabbis have twisted words out of context. In their original setting, these words were intended to reinforce the tradition, not disparage it; indeed, the Torah instructs all Jewish children to pose this question. Why then did rabbinic tradition put this question only in the mouth of the wicked child? Weren’t they living proof that it is precisely this kind of personality — skeptical, provocative, contrary — that would best guarantee Jewish survival?

Like the parent of the wicked child, Moses (as Parashat Devarim presents him) seems ambivalent about his contrary people, and perhaps about himself. During much of his speech, he separates himself from the Israelites, addressing them as “you”; but on occasion he uses “we,” as when reminiscing about battles they fought together (Deuteronomy 3:12). For that brief moment, he regards them as equals who have shared important decisions about the distribution of land. But before he even finishes the verse, he pulls back, telling them four times how “I [that is, Moses] assigned” the regions of that apportioned land.

The portion invites us to see that, like most parents, Moses has loved his children even when they have acted the part of the wicked child. And like most parents, he has sometimes felt rejected and betrayed when his children have asserted their autonomy. As he now prepares to let them go into the new land, he must decide what his final message to them should be. Tellingly, the portion concludes with his encouraging words to Joshua, “Do not fear… for it is your God Adonai who will battle for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22). In the end, Moses recognizes that this is a new generation about to enter the land, and they need his blessing as well as God’s.

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).


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