D’var Torah: Moshe’s Changing Perspectives – and Ours

The book of Devarim consists mainly of Moshe’s retelling of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the threshold of entering the promised land. It is fascinating how some stories change in their retelling. Memory is a funny thing, and every retelling of a story is a combination of what happened and the memory of what happened. Sometimes the changes are inaccurate, sometimes the changes reflect different vantage points, and sometimes the changes reflect how the teller of the story has evolved, grown and altered their perspective.

The week’s parsha retells the story of the spies, which we read just a few weeks ago. There are some significant differences. First, in this telling, Moshe recounts that it was his and the people’s idea to send the spies, in contrast to the previous telling, where it was God’s idea. Additionally, Moshe says that the failure of the spies and their unwillingness to trust God resulted in Moshe being banned from entering Israel. This is in contrast to the previous version, where it is Moshe’s hitting of the rock that results in his punishment.

Biblical critics would probably claim that these differences result from the fact that these two books of the Torah were written by different authors and that each author may not have known the other version. Nevertheless, I think there are lessons to be learned by viewing the Torah as one continuous story.

In the first telling of the story, the narrator says that God initiated the spy episode. There is no blame put on Moshe. I think that this version is meant to reflect God’s perspective and that God is protecting Moshe’s legacy. It is also possible that Moshe and God are so connected that in reality Moshe is upholding God’s policy. It is sort of like when a counselor makes a decision for her campers that is based on a general camp rule.

The second telling comes from Moshe’s perspective. I think that Moshe’s statement that he was responsible for sending the spies shows a maturity on his part. He is not going to blame God but instead accepts the fact that he is the leader who made the decision. Moshe does go on to say that the spies’ report – which is seen as negative by the people – is the reason that he is forbidden from entering Israel. One could argue that Moshe is blaming the people for his fate. Alternatively, one could say that Moshe recognizes his punishment as a natural consequence. Moshe is a fabulous leader, but perhaps his inability to get the exodus generation to believe they could become a free nation was proof that a new leader was needed.

The changing story teaches us something else that is also true at camp. It is almost impossible to know precisely what happens in any one incident. People of good will can perceive, remember and recount very different realities. We do have choices about how we learn and respond to what we think happened and in the attitude we bring to try to understand differing perspectives.

Walt Whitman teaches (via Ted Lasso, in my case) to “be curious, not judgmental.” By listening to everyone’s versions of the story, we might not actually know exactly what happened, but we may learn important truths about the important lessons we need to learn from it. Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah, Shabbat