Remember the Golden Calf incident? Moses recalls it in this week’s sedra, Ekev, forty years after that fateful day at Mount Sinai. How does Moses’ recollection compare with the original account we find in Exodus?
Human memory is famously unreliable; it is a plastic, malleable, and often an inaccurate tapestry of things that actually did happen together with our emotional reactions to events and past memories and feelings about them. What is more, as a classic 1978 study led by Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated, merely asking misleading questions can cause people to alter their memories. Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories. Many scientists have long believed that once a memory is consolidated, it is solid, but Nader began to wonder what happens—chemically—when a memory is recalled.
Scientists have long known that recording a memory requires adjusting the connections between neurons. Each memory tweaks some tiny subset of the neurons in the brain (the human brain has 100 billion neurons in all), changing the way they communicate. Neurons send messages to one another across narrow gaps called synapses. A synapse is like a bustling port, complete with machinery for sending and receiving cargo—neurotransmitters, specialized chemicals that convey signals between neurons. All of the shipping machinery is built from proteins, the basic building blocks of cells.
Experimenting with species ranging from worms to rats to human beings, Nader demonstrated that memories can be distorted in the act of being reactivated; in other words, in the remembering itself.
Is that what happens to Moses? Torah recounts in Exodus chapter 32 the episode of the Golden Calf constructed and worshipped by the Israelites while Moses tarried on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. A careful reading of the account reveals that Moses is at the top of the mountain when God tells him, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely….” (Exodus 2:7). God next threatens to destroy this “stiffnecked people” and begin anew with Moses, who responds swiftly and deftly:
But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, glaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self…” And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people. Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact… (Exodus 32:11-15)
Only then does Moses descend the mountain. When is close enough to the Israelite encampment to first hear, and then see, the Israelites engaged in worshiping the Golden Calf, he hurls the tablets to the ground, smashing them, then grounds them to powder. Some time later, he again ascends the mountain with two blank stone tablets in hand:
The Lord said to Moses: "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered. Be ready by morning, and in the morning come up to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to Me, on the top of the mountain…” So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. (Exodus 34: 1, 2, 4)
Forty years later, when Moses recounts this incident to the Israelites in parshat Ekev, his telling differs significantly from the account in Exodus. In Moses’ telling, God informs him of the Israelites’ apostasy and tells him to hurry down the mountain, much as in the account we find in Exodus. But then, Moses says, he flings himself on the ground and fasts for forty days and nights to convince God not to wipe out the people. The conversation in which Moses convinces God to relent takes place not when God informs Moses of the people’s idolatry at the top of the mountain, but after Moses has descended and as part of, or following, Moses’ extremely long fast.
At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant. And the Lord said to me, "Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image." The Lord further said to me, "I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Let Me alone and I will destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will make you a nation far more numerous than they.” I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. I threw myself down before the Lord — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what displeased the Lord and vexing Him. For I was in dread of the Lord's fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me. — Moreover, the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him; so I also interceded for Aaron at that time. — As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain. (Deuteronomy 9:11-21)
And there is more. Moses’ recollection of his words to God entails a far more elaborate speech emphasizing the people’s wickedness, something not found in the Exodus account:
When I lay prostrate before the Lord those forty days and forty nights, because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I prayed to the Lord and said, "O Lord God, do not annihilate Your very own people, whom You redeemed in Your majesty and whom You freed from Egypt with a mighty hand. Give thought to Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and pay no heed to the stubbornness of this people, its wickedness, and its sinfulness. Else the country from which You freed us will say, 'It was because the Lord was powerless to bring them into the land that He had promised them, and because He rejected them, that He brought them out to have them die in the wilderness.' Yet they are Your very own people, whom You freed with Your great might and Your outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 9:25-29)
And finally, in Moses’ recollection of events, he ascends Sinai a second time with not only two stone tablets, but also an ark of acadia wood he himself made at God’s behest—despite Exodus’ explicitly telling us that Betzalel made the ark:
Thereupon the Lord said to me, "Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.” I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain. The Lord inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first, the Ten Commandments that He addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:1-5)
It appears that Moses has greatly embellished and adorned the events of forty years prior, enlarged his role and ramped up his heroism. It is often the case that when we recall events from our past, our role stretches, if not soars, to new heights, and we become the central, heroic character in the drama we recall. Beyond the factors identified by neurobiologists, there may be numerous psychological factors at play as well, including our own desire to portray ourselves in a desirable light and a deep wish that we had behaved in a particular way or said particular things. The narrative we construct from our memories is one that has special meaning for us.
The malleability of human memory suggests numerous lessons and precautions. I’d like to highlight three.
First, knowing that our initial memories are rarely complete and accurate and, additionally, that with time and the very act of remembering, our memories change, we would do well to keep in mind that the video tape running in our brains is not from a bodycam. How often have we ascribed words and actions to ourselves that others claim were theirs? How often have others claimed credit for words and actions we are certain belong to us? Let us proceed gently, and with humility, lest we trample the feelings of others. Moses is the classic model of humility (Numbers 12:3) and even he, it seems, was prone to some exaggeration.
Second, the memories we fashion are the components of narratives of self-creation. Dr. William Randall, gerontologist and author of The Stories We Are, says that how we see ourselves and the meaning of our lives is implicit in our memories, which are how we tell the story of our lives. The stories others tell about us can influence us greatly, too. And both affect how we live our lives. Consider what your memories—the story of your life—tells you about yourself, your potential, your limitations, your goodness, your value. This is a good thing to keep in mind when we share memories of others. It is also a reminder of the importance of listening deeply to other peoples’ telling of their memories, their stories.
Third, knowing that memories are malleable gives us a measure of control in shaping our memories. When we experience something upsetting, frightening, or traumatic, we can choose which aspects of the event to highlight for ourselves and make the focus of our memories. The act of remembering is no different from the creation of a narrative in which we are narrator and protagonist in our own drama. Do we focus on, and continually review, our feelings of anger, resentment, fear, exploitation, powerlessness, and pain? Or do we make an effort to to push to the fore the redeeming aspects (however small), such as the people who reached out in kindness and offered comfort? Do we search for, and focus on, our own strength and resiliency? Try clearing your mind, and then recall a difficult or troubling episode in your life. Now retell the story to yourself—go ahead and write it down—from this angle: the kindnesses of others (give full rein to gratitude), your own strength (however modest in scale), something valuable you learned from the experience (even if the lesson came at a cost). You are reframing the memory—not violating it.
Moses’ speech to the Israelites recalling the incident of the Golden Calf may well represent his memories, but it is a narrative story he has created in his own mind, just as our memories are narrative stories in our minds. There are alternative ways to tell any story, as we see from the account of the Golden Calf in Exodus chapter 32 and Moses’ version in Deuteronomy 9-10. In some ways, our lives are the sum of stories we tell ourselves about what has happened to us and, as a result, who we are. We are the storytellers.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
This has powerful implications for people who are plagued by memories and those who work with people who suffer from PTSD. If the quality of their memories can be altered, the trauma it inflicts can be reduced. Experiments are currently underway to determine how best to use this knowledge to decrease the suffering of people with PTSD.