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In this week’s Parsha we encounter perhaps one of the most astounding statements ever made by Moses in the entire Torah. The people are worshipping a calf at the bottom of mount Sinai and Moses is at the top of the mountain. God reveals to him that the people below are worshipping a calf and that God is considering destroying them all and starting over with him. What is Moses’ response? Chapter 32, verse 11, vayechal Moshe et-penei Hashem elokav, Moses entreated God and said, lamah Hashem yechereh apcha be’amecha, ‘Why, God, should you be angry at your people?’
What is he talking about? Why should you be angry at your people? They are supposed to be accepting the Torah, and they are dancing around a golden calf, an idol that they have made with their very own hands, and you have the chutzpah to ask God, ‘Why should you be angry with your people?’ What is he talking about?
If you would pole a hundred people and ask them for the best possible argument that Moses could have mounted in defense of the Jewish people at that time, none of them would say, ‘Why, God, should you be angry at your people?’ How do we understand this?
Ramban asks a fundamental question about the encounter between Moses and God and the aftermath of the golden calf episode. Ramban says Moses’ strategy should have been simple. Everyone knows that when someone commits a grievous sin, the only way out is teshuvah, repentance, and repentance requires a process known as vidui. Admitting that you are wrong, apology. Now, vidui is something that Moses does on behalf of the people later on in this episode. Many verses later, after Moses goes down to the bottom of the mountain, Moses comes back up, admits the sin, and begs God’s forgiveness. The Ramban’s question is, why didn’t he do that initially at the top of the mountain? Why would Moses have the audacity to say, ‘Why, God, should you be angry at your people?’ Why doesn’t he instead admit the people are wrong and beg God for compassion? In order to understand the Ramban's answer, we need to look at the verses more carefully. Let’s read the whole discussion between Moses and God starting from a few verses earlier.
The conversation between Moses and God begins in verse 7, vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lech-red. God has been with Moses at the top of the mountain for 40 days, and then God suddenly says to him, ‘go down,’ ki shichet amcha asher he’eleita me’eretz Mitzrayim, because your people, that you took out of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. There are two warning signals in that verse. The first is the word shichet. Shichet has a short but terrible history in the chumash. It is the word that foreshadows the flood. God looked upon the land, vehineh nishchatah, and indeed it was corrupt and it was ruined, ki-hishchit kol-basar et-darko al-ha’aretz, because all flesh had corrupted their ways on the land. Those were the words that presaged the flood, and now, lech-red, ‘go down, Moses’, ki shichet amcha, because your people have corrupted themselves. The last time we had corruption, it was the end. This time, God seems to be saying it might well be the end, too.
Lech-red ki shichet amcha asher he’eleita me’eretz Mitzrayim, ‘Go down because your people, Moses, have corrupted themselves.’ What do you mean your people? I thought they were God’s people, too. God seems to be disassociating himself from the people. What do you do before you destroy? You pull back. These are very ominous signs. As we keep on reading, what is implicit starts to become explicit.
God continues, saru maher min-haderech asher tzivitim, ‘they have quickly left the path that I have commanded them,’ asu lahem egel masechah, ‘they made a molten calf,’ vayishtachavu-lo vayizbechu-lo, ‘they have worshipped it, they have sacrificed before it.’ Vayomru, and they have said, eleh eloheicha Yisrael asher he’elucha me’eretz Mitzrayim, ‘this is your god O Israel who has taken you out of Egypt.’ That’s the indictment, and then something interesting happens.
Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, God says to Moses, ra’iti et-ha’am hazeh vehineh am-kshe-oref hu. ‘I have seen these people,’ God says, ‘I see that they are stiffnecked people.’ There’s something subtle that’s strange about this verse, and that is that it begins by saying, vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, and God said to Moses. God was the one speaking, Moses didn’t say anything. Just let God continue speaking. Why does there have to be a new ‘and God said to Moses’? The answer seems to be that this isn’t one long speech. There are two separate declarations that God makes. The first one is the indictment, and after that indictment, there was a pause, and in that pause, there was silence. So God continued and made the second declaration. But what was supposed to happen in that silence? What could have happened at that silence?
God was acting as the prosecutor, passing down the indictment. Moses was given the opportunity to act as defense attorney, except the defense attorney was silent, because there was nothing to say in defense. How could you possibly defend the calf? And because the defense attorney was silent, the prosecutor continues, with the second declaration, and the second declaration was not an indictment, it’s a conviction. Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, God says to Moses, ‘I have seen these people, they are stiffnecked people, they are not going to change, and therefore I hand down the following sentence,’ ve’atah hanichah li, ‘leave me alone,’ veyichar-api bahem, ‘and let my anger flare against them,’ va’achalem, ‘I will utterly destroy them,’ ve’e’eseh otcha legoy gadol, ‘and I will make you into a great nation, I will start over with you.’
It seems like it is all signed, sealed, and delivered. There’s an indictment, there is no defense, there’s a conviction, and there’s a sentence, but Moses doesn’t accept that it’s all over. Moses, the man who couldn’t defend the people, then begins to speak. How can you speak if you can’t defend them?
Listen to what God said, carefully. Ve’atah hanichah li, ‘leave me alone,’ veyichar-api bahem, ‘and let my anger flare against them.’ Why did God say leave me alone? He didn’t have to say those words. Rashi picks up on that and says that Moses inferred something from those words. ‘Leave me alone and I will destroy them.’ And if I don’t leave you alone, maybe you won’t destroy them?
Fine, so I won’t leave you alone, and that brings us right back to the Ramban’s point. The Ramban says that if you want to understand what Moses was doing there at the top of the mountain, you have to understand that he could not have apologized on behalf of the people. Of course it is true that apology is the only effective way to expunge sin, but you can’t apologize for the people that are still in the middle of worshipping the calf. An apology in those circumstances is laughable. The only thing Moses could do is to go down to the bottom of the mountain. Get the people to see the error of their ways, destroy the calf, then go up to the top of the mountain and apologize on their behalf.
There’s only one problem. God said, hanichah li, ‘leave me alone and I will destroy them.’ Which means that the second Moses starts turning to head down to the mountain, what happens? That’s it for the people. By the time he reaches the bottom, there’s nothing left. There’s no one to apologize for anymore, they are all destroyed. Moses has to stay at the top of the mountain, he can’t leave God alone. That’s his opportunity, but you see the impossibility of his position. What can he say? He cannot defend them, he has already admitted that he cannot defend them. There’s no defending people worshipping a calf when they are supposed to be accepting the Torah, and he can’t apologize on their behalf because they are still worshipping the calf, and he can’t go down to get them to apologize. He must stay there, but he has nothing to say. So what does he say? He says the most outrageous thing of all. ‘Why should you be angry with your people?’ What do you mean, why should you be angry with your people?
So here you have to understand the crucial distinction between the two Hebrew words for ‘why’, lamah and madua. Why would one language have two words for ‘why’ unless they didn’t mean the same thing? Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. It means what happened in the past to cause the present state of affairs? When Moses looked at the burning bush, madua lo-yivar hasneh, what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present. But that is not the only kind of ‘why’ that you can ask. You can ask a different kind of ‘why’. A lamah kind of ‘why’. Lamah is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.
Yes, I understand what happened to make you angry, God. That’s not my question, we all get that. The question is, where will this anger take you? Let’s read the rest of the words. Lamah yechereh apcha be’amecha. Moshe says, ‘why should you be angry with your people?’ Don’t say it is my people, it is your people. You are attached to them whether you like it or not. Do you know why? Because, asher hotzeta me’eretz Mitzrayim, these are the people that you took out of Egypt, you weighed your destiny to them. Becho’ach gadol uveyad chazakah, you took them out with an outstretched arm, and you publicly claimed this people as your own. You know what will happen if you destroy them? Lamah yomru Mitzrayim lemor bera’ah hotzi’am, Egypt is going to say that you took them out with ill intent. Laharog otam beharim, you took them out to kill them on the mountain tops, ulechalotam me’al penei ha’adamah, and to destroy them. You weren’t powerful enough to sustain them. Egypt will never understand, and it is not just Egypt. It is not just your enemies who won’t understand.
Zechor le-Avraham le-Yitzchak ule-Yisrael avadeicha, remember the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What you are going to say to them? Asher nishbata lahem bach, you swore to them, arbeh et-zar’achem kechochvei hashamayim, that I will multiply your descendants like the stars of the heaven, and what are you going to do now? Destroy everyone and start over with me? So, I come in the land with my two sons, Eliezer and Gershom? Those are like the stars of the heaven? Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac aren’t going to be very impressed with that. God, you have no choice.
Look at the brilliance of Moses. What is the only way to stop the most powerful being in the universe from destroying the people in the wake of this terrible affront? There’s only one thing that could box God in, and that’s God himself. You made certain decisions God, you chose to swear to the forefathers that you would bring their descendents to the land like the stars of the heaven, you choose to bring the people out with signs and wonders. Those actions have consequences that even you cannot escape. I understand why you are angry, but where will your anger take you? Shuv mecharon apecha vehinachem al-hahar’ah le’amecha, you have no choice but to allow your anger to subside.
Moses’ heroism at this moment is that he found something to say when there was nothing to say. Moses, at the top of the mountain, is the first filibuster in recorded history. He had to stay there with nothing that he could possibly say. So he said the impossible. Why should you be angry? And all of us, for all of our history, owe our lives, to his great act of benevolent chutzpah.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
13. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
19. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
20. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
21. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
22. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
23. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
24. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
25. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
26. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
27. Metzora: Living Within the Community
28. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
29. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
30. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
31. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
32. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
33. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
34. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
35. Korach: Can We Influence God?
36. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
37. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
38. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
39. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
40. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
41. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
42. Va'etchanan: Seeing Layers in the Ten Commandments
43. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
44. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
45. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
46. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
47. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
48. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
49. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
50. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
51. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
52. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
53. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
54. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
55. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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