I was sitting in my study a few years ago with a couple who had been members of my synagogue for over 35 years. They were recounting a recent experience they had when celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and it made me think about this week’s Torah portion.
The story they told me was typical: the husband had decided to surprise his wife by ordering a special 50th anniversary wedding cake, created to look exactly like the beautiful, long-flowing blue dress that she wore on their first date when they went to a dance at a local synagogue together. He smiled as he told me how his wife was certainly surprised, but not exactly the way he had expected. Following his grand flourish of presenting the cake and recounting the story of the dress and dance to the assembled guests, she smiled and replied that in fact her dress had been short and red — and their first date had been to the local county fair.
Listening to them was like a flashback to that great Broadway tune that Maurice Chevalier made famous, “Ah yes, I remember it well.” I realized that it’s simply human nature to have selective memory as we look back over the experiences of our lives.
All of us do it. We remember our past through the filter of our own emotional experiences, lost dreams and goals fulfilled. From the greatest to the least of us, men and women, old and young, we are constantly refashioning the story of our lives to be consistent with our self-image and our deep-seated need for approval and self-esteem.
We remember positive experiences of our past in such a way as to reinforce our best view of ourselves, and limit the degree to which we remember failures and losses. In fact, this predilection is so natural as to be one of the fundamental criteria for how we define maturity in our culture. In many ways maturity is the willingness to accept personal responsibility for our own lives, our own decisions and the way those personal decisions have impacted our lives and the lives of those around us.
What is so remarkable about this week’s Torah story? Here we find our greatest and most humble leader, Moses, at the end of his life, having just as much difficulty accepting responsibility for the consequences of his decisions as the rest of us.
He retells the story of 40 years earlier when the Children of Israel first encountered the promised land — and in the retelling, he conveniently shifts the burden of responsibility for his own failings to the community. “Because of you, Adonai was incensed with me too, and he said: You shall not enter it (the land of Israel) either. (Deuteronomy 1:37)
He tells the Jewish people that their lack of faith in God was to blame for his punishment. Here, he’s referring to the people’s reluctance to enter the land because of their fear of the giant-like inhabitants. But in fact, the reason God refused to let Moses enter the land of Israel was because of Moses’s own lack of faith in a different incident: when to procure water for his frightened and thirsty people, he struck the rock twice in anger instead of simply speaking to it as God had directed.
Even Moses was a revisionist of history. Even Moses had a difficult time simply admitting his own mistakes. Even Moses fell prey to that destructive human quality of looking for others to blame. And if it was true in the time of Moses, it is all the more prevalent now.
Indeed, as I look at the many problems that confront our own age, I truly believe that one of the most destructive to the fabric of our entire society is this constant need of so many to search for someone else to blame for their own problems, failings, and shortcomings. “It’s my parent’s fault, my teacher’s/boss’s/children’s s fault. It’s the fault of television, movies, rock and roll, the internet, etc, etc, etc.”
When Thomas Carlyle was almost finished writing The French Revolution, a maid accidentally threw the pile of papers into the fire. Carlyle was heartsick and frustrated, but he neither punished the maid nor went into mourning for the destroyed manuscript. Instead, he simply sat down and rewrote the masterpiece.
Our lives are our own masterpieces and it is up to us to have the maturity every day to accept who we are, to embrace the consequences of how we act, and to encourage a profound sense of personal responsibility in others as well. Then perhaps if the messiah hasn’t come yet, we won’t even notice.