A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend where we were reminiscing about some events from our past. While we, broadly speaking, remembered the event in the same way, there were certain elements and details which we both remembered differently. Possibly because of perspective, possibly because I don’t have the best memory. Or, maybe for some other reason, our memory of the event, while similar, was in some way different. And, this led to a different emphasis in our retelling.
In this weeks Torah portion we begin the book of Devarim and with it we begin the process of Moses sharing his memories with the Israelites as he prepares them to go into the Promised Land without him.
At the beginning of this Torah portion, Moses shared 2 facts with the Israelites which can be troubling to those of us who've been paying attention to the Torah up to this point. In the first instance, Moses says to them that because he felt he couldn't bear the burden of the people on his own that was the reason that he set up magistrates and judges over thousands, over hundreds, over fifties, and over tens. And then in the second instance as Moses remembers the incident of the spies who went out to scout the Land of Israel, he says to the children of Israel that it was because of you at this time that God decreed that, I, Moses, should not enter into the Promised Land.
For those of us following along, we know that in the first instance, with the magistrates, it was actually Yitro, Moses father-in-law who came to him and told him that the thing he was doing was not good. And in the second instance it was after Moses struck the rock at Meribah that God decreed that Moses and Aaron should not enter into the Promised Land.
In approaching these discrepancies, we have 3 choices. Perhaps Moses forgot, he lost track of the details, and so on the spot when telling the Israelites about what had happened, he changed the facts slightly, unintentionally. As a second option maybe Moses simply remembered it differently from the way that we have it written down in the text. He remembered the events as he told the people in Devarim. Or the third option is that Moses was trying to teach the people a lesson, and so changed history to serve the purpose of the lesson he was trying to teach.
In this way in telling the people about the introduction of magistrates he was teaching them that they themselves need to know their own limits because there might not be a Yitro there to tell them when they’re taking on too much. And in remembering the story of the spies, perhaps it was his way of reminding the people that they were all in this together, and that their actions would impact the leader and the people equally and so he wanted to place himself amongst the people in the verdict God issued upon them after this incident.
We might never know the reason for the discrepancy in the text, but I like to think that Moses took the opportunity of teaching a lesson. Recognizing every opportunity to teach is a good opportunity, and with the hope that we too will hear this lesson and learn from it.