Shall we be charitable to the old man, or shall we take issue with him and his selective memory? It's an interesting dilemma, and full of lessons for and from real life.
Whether for brevity's sake, deliberate omission, genuine memory loss, or memory loss caused by continuing to believe something different than the reality having its effect over time, it's clear that the story related by Moshe in these opening chapters of the restatement and rebuke that is Sefer D'varim, the book of Deuteronomy isn't quite synchronous with the earlier tellings in the previous books. He takes credit for things which earlier were credited to others. Were is Yitro (Jethro) in this retelling as Moshe explains how he set judges and leaders over the people? And how about Moshe's convenient re-remembering of why he would not be permitted by Gd to enter the promised land which he now blames on the people Israel rather than his own actions? Why, in this retelling, is only Caleb rewarded for speaking out against the other spies and being allowed to live through the desert wanderings while the rest of his generation died out?
Any of the explanations I offered, and yet more, can be convincing explanations for these incongruities. Moshe is suffering from memory loss. Moshe is suffering from deliberate memory loss. Moshe actually believes what he is telling now is what really happened.
This is Moshe we are talking about. Moshe, to whom Gd passed Gd's wonder before him while shielded in the cleft of a rock. Moshe, who heeded, however reluctantly, Gd's call, and confronted Pharaoh, and led the Israelites out of Egypt. Moshe, who received the aseret hadibrot, the 10 commandments. Moshe, who argued with Gd so that Gd would not in anger destroy the Israelite people. Moshe, who put up with this anshei oref, this stiff-necked people, their bickering, their whining, their complaints, yet has now led them to the very threshold of the land promised by Gd to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
Surely, for all that, we can cut him a little slack.
On the other hand, as I have written about in other recent musings, perhaps it really is time for Moshe to step down, and these are just more symptoms, more good reasons, shown to us so there is no more doubt. Give the guy one last farewell speech and then let Joshua take over. We owe him that, right? Gd owes him that, right?
So it's easy to be charitable. But it's equally easy to be troubled by Moshe's selective rememberings.
How many of us, I wonder, have similar trouble with the selective memory of our own parents, grandparents, relatives, or old friends? Conversations that follow a course of: Forgive me, I am sure your memory is different than mine, and it's possible we are both remembering correctly. But just as you are sure it did not happen, I am equally sure that it did.
The Torah offers us no explanations, though many of the sages and rabbonim have attempted to explain these opening chapters of D'varim. I daresay that an equal or greater number have either side-stepped or glossed over the asynchronocity. Academics often stand behind various theories of date of composition, redaction, editing, multiple sources. As a friend of mine suggested, all the inconsistencies might just stem from a lousy job of editing, or spell-checking! Plausible explanations, many of them. The very book of D'varim is in itself a conundrum. Scholarly form-critical study clearly places D'varim apart from the rest of the Torah, likely compiled during the time of it's supposed "discovery" during Josiah's reign.
And there are surely lessons to be learned from this kind of academic biblical criticism and study. That the text was redacted in different ways and different times shows us the power of this book and it's words to shape a society, even a world. And, were I wearing my biblical scholar hat today, perhaps we'd explore this further.
Not today. Today, I take it at face value that we have here some inconsistencies, and no explanations that would appear to come to us from the text itself. But is this truly the case?
Once again, my point is that the absence of an explanation is exactly the point. It's never easy to judge. We cannot truly know what is in the hearts and minds of others, know what motivates them or causes them to say what they say and do what they do. And are we always so sure of our own memories, our own recollections, that we can safely challenge their selective memories we believe we perceive coming from others?
Joshua doesn't say anything. Or Caleb. Or Gd. Perhaps it is charity to an old man. Perhaps it is respect for authority. Perhaps it is concern over what might happen to the people if Moshe is accused of selective remembering. Perhaps it is uncertainty over what really happened. Maybe the memories of Joshua, Caleb and Gd are equally clouded?
Not Gd, I hear you protest. Gd knows all, remembers all, never forgets. Oh, really? Is it a perfect or perfected Gd that Torah reveals to us? No, it is a mysterious one. A petulant one. A Gd perhaps even prone to Gd's own selective memory? A Gd that, when challenged, ultimately seems to fall back on the "pay no attention to the man behind the screen" argument or the "My ways are inscrutable" argument.
And I would say that no less is true for our fellow humans. We cannot truly know them. We can judge from what we see (or don't see) or hear (or don't hear), etc. And this is, I believe, one of Torah's lessons to us this week (and always.) (As an aide, nor can we truly know what may have motivated any editors, redactors, even authors of the text of the Torah as we now have it. Biblical scholarship can be no more certain than spiritually motivated examinations. All have agendas.)
It's OK to be at once at odds with someone's selective memory, yet accept it. Glass houses, as they say.
We can extend the principle not just to issues of memory, but to any and all differences of opinion, or judgment, or thought, or process, or action.
People are so troubled by all the inconsistencies and other problems in the text of the Torah. And Torah's teaching to us is that we needn't always be troubled. Life is and can be inconsistent. Do the best you can. Strive to follow Gd's commandments as you understand them.
A wonderfully inconsistent Shabbat to you and yours.
©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru
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