There are many differences between the stories that are retold in the book of Devarim and their earlier appearances in the Torah. How are we to explain this? If we read in Bamidbar that sending the spies was God’s idea and in Devarim that it was the people’s, it would seem that one version has to be wrong. There can be only one historical truth, so which one is it? I am not overly bothered by this question. Reality is often more complex than we are prepared to admit. Maybe it was the people’s idea, Moshe agreed, and God gave it the okay; maybe God commanded it just at the time that the people were approaching Moshe and suggesting it; or maybe there was some other conflation of events. What’s more, I am willing to live without an answer. I believe that the Torah wanted us to consider the implications of these competing narratives and the religious truths that each has to teach us. I can live without knowing which one, or what combination of the two, accurately describes what happened in history. The question that I find more compelling is this: What is to be learned from the way the stories are retold? Put another way, why did Moshe choose to frame these stories differently in their second appearance? What message was he trying to impart to the generation that was about to enter into the land? Let us examine two of the narratives in this week’s parasha.
We already mentioned the first: the story of the spies. In Bamidbar, God commands Moshe to send the spies; here, the people bring the idea to Moshe. The second narrative is the appointing of judges. In Parashat Yitro, we read that this was the title character’s idea. Here, we are told that it was Moshe’s idea, and the people approved. How are we to understand these re-framings? The answer lies in how we view Moshe’s goals for telling the people of these past events.
It is commonly assumed that his goal was to castigate the people, letting them know how much they had sinned and reminding them of the consequences in order to set them on the straight and narrow so that they would obey God in the future. This would explain why the story of the spies is framed as the people’s idea. To emphasize God’s role would give the people an excuse, allowing them to blame it on God. By bracketing God’s role, Moshe was able to underscore that the blame lay fully at the feet of the people. This approach, however, is too narrow. It doesn’t fully appreciate Moshe’s goals for the speech or explain other differences, such as the Yitro story.
I believe that Moshe’s goal was not to castigate the people, but rather, to prepare them for a life of making responsible choices and to teach them to own responsibility for their future. This is a major theme in the book of Devarim: “Behold I have given you today life and good, and death and evil. And you shall choose life” (30:19). They were moving from a life of dependency on God and, frankly, Moshe to one in which they would have to chart their own destiny; build a country, its infrastructures, and its institutions; and set up a society guided by the Torah. They were no longer the generation of slaves; they were free men and women, and they would have to begin owning that freedom.
This framing explains the differences in the two versions of the story of appointing the judges. As a suggestion from Yitro that was adopted by Moshe, this was a top-down decision that the people had no part in. In contrast, it now appears as Moshe’s idea; he presents it to the people, and they agree: “And you answered me and said, ‘The thing which thou has spoken is good for us to do’” (1:14). Here, Moshe describes a non-authoritarian leadership that consults the people before major decisions, at least those determining who would have power over them. This is leadership that, while not democratic, is at least more collaborative, and it is a populace that is more empowered. Thus, rather than Moshe selecting the judges as described in Shemot, here Moshe tells the people to “pick from each of you” leaders, people who are “known to your tribes.” The people select leaders who can act as real representatives of, and good leaders for, their tribes.
The differences go beyond this. Earlier, Moshe saw himself as the only person able to shoulder the responsibility, and he needed Yitro to point out that he was unable to bear the burden alone. Here, Moshe himself says, “How can I handle myself the trouble of you, your burden and your bickering!” (1:12). He recognizes his own limitations as a leader and knows when he needs to reach out to others for help.
The roles and the qualities of the judges are different as well. In Shemot, Yitro told Moshe to choose those who would judge the people, those who would apply the law that Moshe would teach. The necessary personal qualities were that they be “men of valor, who fear God, men of truth who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Shemot 19:21). In other words, they had to be men with the courage to withstand influence and temptation, who would fear no one in truthfully applying the law. In contrast, their role as judges is not highlighted here. Rather, Moshe states that he needed people to help him share the burden of leading the people, of handling their fights and bickering. This certainly entails adjudicating court cases, but it refers more generally to a position of communal responsibility and leadership, what the term “judges” comes to mean in the book of Judges. Thus, Moshe tells the people to select “wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you” (1:13). Fortitude and truth are not key attributes here; wisdom and understanding are. These are qualities needed in good rulers, and as mentioned, the leaders here are also known to the tribes they serve. They can build on these relationships to engage the people with a leadership that is both collaborative and authoritative.
This brings us to the differences in the stories of the spies. By framing the decision to send the spies as the people’s choice, Moshe was not trying to blame them. Quite the opposite, his telling here depicts a fully proper request. Notice that the people did not ask the spies to report whether the land was good or not, as Moshe had in Bamidbar (13:19–20). Such a directive could have indicated a questioning of the divine promise or the rightness of their mission. In contrast, the people exhibit exactly correct behavior for a people taking responsibility for their future: “let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land.” They wanted to prepare a plan of attack. In this telling, Moshe agrees to the idea, once more showing himself to be a leader who listens to and works together with his people. And it is not the spies who seduce the people here; the evil report is not even directly mentioned. Rather, it is simply stated that “you did not desire to go up” (1:26). Moshe is saying to the people, “You took (proper) responsibility for the plan to send the spies; you must also take responsibility for your decision not to go into the land. When you wailed that ‘our brothers have melted our hearts,’ that was an excuse. In the end, it was your choice, and you must own the consequences of your choices.”
The retelling of these past events drives home the message that the people must take responsibility for their choices, and that one of these was to choose the leaders that fit their needs, leaders who respect them as an empowered people. Perhaps this is what Moshe means when he says, “God was incensed with me too because of you [and told me that I could not enter the land]” (1:37). Rather than reading this as a form of collective punishment, Moshe might be saying that God held him accountable for the failings because, as the leader of the people, he did not do enough to help them mature into a fully empowered society. He may even be saying, “God was angry with me for your sake,” that it was for their benefit that God was angry with Moshe, for God knew that a different type of leader was required. But for the people to merit that new type of leader, they had to be a people who could take and own responsibility. Their mandate now was to become the people ready to enter into the land.