Moses’ memory tricked him at the wilderness

Memory can be a tricky thing. I know that when I recall past events, I don’t always get all the details correct. Sometimes I don’t manage to get any of the details correct.
It’s like that song from Gigi (if I remember correctly), where two of the characters are reminiscing back and forth: “We met at 9. We met at 8. I was on time. No, you were late. Ah, yes, I remember it well.” The emotional memory was strong and accurate, even if the details were completely off. And that’s what makes memory so tricky because we might vividly remember how we felt, even though we don’t recall an accurate memory of events as they occurred.
This week, we start the fifth and final book in the Torah, Devarim, which is conveniently the name of both the book and the portion. The entire book is Moses’ recollection and final charge to the Israelites whom he has led for the past 40 years. There we were about to cross over the Jordan River, and Moses was preparing for his own death. So, Moses began to recount the events that led them to that moment in our history and leave final instructions for our own benefit and relationship with God.
But this is where the tricky memory part comes in. In recounting how the 12 spies entered the Land of Israel to scout out the land, Moses blames the People of Israel for him not being allowed to enter the Land (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, and God said: ‘You shall not enter it either.’” Oh, yes, Moses remembered it well, if not accurately.
In actual fact, it wasn’t until sometime later, after the incident with the spies (see Numbers Chapters 13 and 14) and when they had arrived at the wilderness of Kadesh (see Numbers Chapter 20), that Moses is barred from entering the Land of Israel. Famously, Moses strikes the rock to bring out water for a thirsty and complaining people, instead of invoking God’s name to bring out water. And in response? (Numbers 20:12) “But the Eternal said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’”
What an emotional blow it must have been to Moses that he had led the People of Israel for all that time, only to lose his temper and lose his chance to make it to the Promised Land. I understand and empathize with the emotional memory that they had provoked him and it was their provocation that made Moses miss out. But that wasn’t was really happened.
It is important, vital even, to remember where we have come from before we are able to move forward. It is equally important that our memories be as accurate as possible to the actual event. When we argue with each other about past events, it’s quite possible that both sides are experiencing completely accurate memories of how they felt, while simultaneously remembering the actual event differently. We might perfectly recall our feelings, while conflating them onto inaccurate recollections of events. After all, memory is a tricky thing.
Rabbi Benjamin D. Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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