Parashah (portion) VaEtchanan – Was Moses Lying?
Deuteronomy 3:1 – 7:11

A few weeks ago at Shabbat services I spoke about the story of the “Waters of Meribah” wherein God sentenced Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness for having disobeyed His specific command. God had told them to order the rock to yield its water for the Israelites to quench their thirst; but instead, Moses, furious at the relentless rebellious nation, struck the rock twice with his staff; thus going against the divine instructions.

Last week’s Torah portion finds Moses talking to the new generation of Israelites (after the rebellious one had died out) and telling them an altogether different story. There he recalled the dreadful report of the spies who went scouting the Promised Land, which caused the Israelites to kvetch about going back to Egypt. As Moses retells the story: “The Eternal heard your loud complaint and, becoming angry, vowed: ‘Not one of these people, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give your fathers…,'” but then adding: “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, saying: ‘You shall not enter.'” [Deut. 1:34-37] And this week again, in the middle of now retelling the Sinai story and warning the Israelites about idolatry, Moses interrupts himself to say: “Now the Eternal was angry with me because of you and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land… For I must die in this land…” [Deut. 4:21] Why was Moses lying?

Notice that in Torah no hero is perfect. They are all flawed and complex, which makes them altogether human and, consequently, relatable. My point is, therefore, neither to condemn Moses nor to rehabilitate him; rather it is to understand what motivates his lies. A little research uncovers that truth-telling in our tradition is not a universal moral absolute. Both the Torah and the Talmud teach that, while it is extremely important, there are occasions where lying is not only authorized, it is even mandated. There are, indeed, six instances in Jewish law where we are obligated to lie: 1) When telling the truth would hurt someone else needlessly; 2) When the question you are asked is a violation of your privacy; 3) When one is exaggerating to make a point, though the exaggeration is clear (i.e. If I eat anymore, I’m going to explode!); 4) When lying does some good or creates peace; 5) When dealing with dishonest or deceptive people or government; 6) To avoid causing harm in the future (i.e. when life is at stake).

So what was the rationale for Moses’ blaming the previous generation for his punishment? I argue that Moses did for the Israelites what the Zionist propaganda did for the Jews over a century ago. In order to promote the emigration of European Jews to the desert of Palestine, they “invented” a new Jew. That new Palestinian Jew was a conquering pioneer, when the European Jew was portrayed as submissive and meek. The Zionist Jew was depicted as muscular and tan, while the Jew of Europe was seen as pale and weak. The “new Jew” stood tall and free, while his European brother was bent over and at the mercy of his government edicts. Contrary to the European Jew’s dark past, the free Zionist Jew had a bright future. Moses, too, wanted a new generation to be born; a generation that would be radically different from the one that had come before. He wasn’t looking for this new nation to be an evolution of the preceding one, he wanted there to be a complete break from the past. The previous generation was, among other things, idolatrous, fickle, and lacked faith. The two altered stories Moses told meant, perhaps, to point to these flaws and to the dire consequences not only for the people but for their leaders as well. As they are about to enter into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, Moses is telling the Israelites to rid themselves of their ancestors’ shortcomings and to be reborn as a new nation. In doing so, was he lying? Yes. But one can argue that it was for the greater good.

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.