Moses Rewrites History

Why does Moses change his story as he retells it at the end of his life?

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Shedding New Light on the Wicked Child

Each year at the Passover seder, we Jews re-enact a similar drama, warning the next generation not to act the part of the rasha, the wicked child, in the haggadah's parable of the Four Children. If we look closely at this exchange between the parent and the wicked child, we can hear in the former's rebuke of the latter echoes of what we hear in this parashah. As some versions of the haggadah phrase the dialogue: "The wicked child asks: 'What is this service to you?' ... And because these children exclude themselves from the community, you should chastise them, saying: 'Because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.' 'For me' and not 'for them,' for had they been there, they would not have been redeemed." This is a painful text for many Jews. Who among us does not know a contrary child, perhaps our own, who feels so alienated from Judaism that she is willing to be excluded from the community?

In order to truly understand what this vignette in fact conveys, we need to probe further. When we look up the original context of the rasha's question (Exodus 12:26), we discover that the Rabbis have twisted words out of context. In their original setting, these words were intended to reinforce the tradition, not disparage it; indeed, the Torah instructs all Jewish children to pose this question. Why then did rabbinic tradition put this question only in the mouth of the rasha? Weren't they living proof that it is precisely this kind of personality--skeptical, provocative, contrary--that would best guarantee Jewish survival?

Like the parent of the rasha, Moses (as parashat D'varim presents him) seems ambivalent about his contrary people, and perhaps about himself. During much of his speech, he separates himself from the Israelites, addressing them as "you"; but on occasion he uses "we," as when reminiscing about battles they fought together (3:12). For that brief moment, he regards them as equals who have shared important decisions about the distribution of land. But before he even finishes the verse, he pulls back, telling them four times how "I [that is, Moses] assigned" the regions of that apportioned land.

The parashah invites us to see that, like most parents, Moses has loved his children even when they have acted the part of the rasha. And like most parents, he has sometimes felt rejected and betrayed when his children have asserted their autonomy. As he now prepares to let them go into the new land, he must decide what his final message to them should be. Tellingly, the parashah concludes with his encouraging words to Joshua, "Do not fear... for it is your God Adonai who will battle for you" (3:22). In the end, Moses recognizes that this is a new generation about to enter the land, and they need his blessing as well as God's.

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Ellen Frankel is the CEO of the Jewish Publication Society. She wrote The Five Books of Miriam, a compelling retelling and woman's commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah. In addition to her books, Frankel is the author of numerous stories, essays and reviews.