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Parashat Devarim: Moshe Rabbenu’s Retelling of his Appointment of Judges

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Jul 2, 2009
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Deuteronomy 1:9-18 states:


Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The L-RD your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky.-May the L-RD, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you as he promised you.-How can I alone bear the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.”


You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.”


So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed the heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.


I further charged your magistrates as follows:”Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.”


Thus I instructed you, at the time, about the various things that you should do.


It is interesting to compare these verses with Exodus 18: 13-27 and to notice the numerous discrepancies between the two accounts. The Torah there states:


Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you have undertaken for the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”


Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I arbitrate between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”


But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, you as well as the people. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now, listen to me, I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You act for the people in behalf of God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way there are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain; and set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them exercise authority over the people at all times; let them bring every major dispute to you, but decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself, and let them share the burden with you. If you do all this-and so God commands you- you still be able to bear up; and all these people will go home content.”


Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said. Moses chose capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people- chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. And they exercised authority over the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor maters they would decide themselves. Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way to his own land.


The most obvious difference between the two sources, of course, is the omission of Yitro from Moses’ description of the events in Deuteronomy. But there is another important distinction. In Sefer Devarim, there is a note of weariness in Moses’ account that is totally different from the account in Sefer Shemot. Only in Devarim do we find the exclamation, How can I alone bear the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! What can account for this difference?


Rav Lichtenstein once suggested that the difference in emphasis between the two accounts stems from the fact that in Sefer Devarim, Moshe is recounting the events from his own personal perspective. He had already endured 40 years of hardship and pain leading the troublesome children of Israel. He was constantly aware that because of the events at Mei Meribah, he could not be allowed to set foot in Eretz Yisrael, the land he longed for so desperately. Even after the forty years were over, he still had to endure their complaints of the populace. Thus there was an inevitable note of weariness that set in, when recalling the events that transpired forty years earlier.


Scientists now understand that human memory is not merely a passive retrieval of impressions, as the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume thought. It is an active, dynamic process. As long as we are alive, we are filtering our memories of past events through all the subsequent events that transpired after the events that we are remembering. (A good book that pertains to this topic is by Mary Warnock and is titled Imagination. It ispublished by the University of California Press, 1978.)


Pursuing this idea further, a comment by Ramban regarding a discrepancy between Moshe’s retelling of the account of the spies and the original account in Sefer Ba-Midbar can now be more fully understood. Deuteronomy 1:45 states:


Again you wept before the L-RD, but the L-RD would not heed your cry or give ear to you.


But, as Ramban (ad loc.) remarks, There (in the Book of Numbers, 14:45) Scripture did not mention this weeping, for there was no need to mention it. But Moses mentioned it now...


But why did Moshe mention it now?


Ramban continues:


...as praise that they (the children of Israel) regretted their sin, and to tell them that this sin was too great to forgive because the great oath (of God) had already been pronounced, and a Heavenly decree accompanied by an oath cannot be rent. (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah: Deuteronomy [Chavel edition],  p. 23.)


Perhaps davka now in Sefer Devarim Moshe had a special reason to mention the weeping of benei Yisrael. Moshe, realizing that although he had done teshuvah for his mysterious sin at Mei Meribah, he could still not enter Eretz Yisrael. The gezerah of God was final. But Moshe had acquired a deep empathy for the rest of benei Yisrael who were also denied the opportunity to enter the land. He wished to state that they cried as praise that they regretted their sin, as Ramban put it.


The ways of God are inscrutable. Moshe Rabbenu reached the heights of identification with the travails of his fellow Israelites while at the same time he accepted that the Will of God, the Judge, is unalterably final.


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    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the ninth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser and by the Polinsky, Miller, and Weiss families in memory of their dear father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Avraham ben Menachem Moshe a'h