“Moses Wrestles with G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Tisah, we read of the fateful episode of the Golden Calf. Moses goes up the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the Torah. When Moses doesn’t return by the fortieth day, the people become impatient and demand of Aaron that he make a “god” for them, because they do not know what has became of Moses. Trying to delay them, Aaron requests that the people bring the gold rings and jewelry from their sons, wives and daughters. Uncharacteristically, the people bring their jewelry with great alacrity. Aaron takes the jewelry from their hands, binds it in a cloth and fashions it into a molten calf. The people worship and dance before the Golden Calf.

G-d tells Moses to descend from the mountain because the people that he [Moses] brought out of Egypt have become corrupt. G-d tells Moses to stop badgering Him, allow Him to destroy the nation, and make from Moses a new and great nation.

With overtones of a PR consultant, Moses pleads before G-d and argues with Him. Why should Egypt say that G-d took the people out with evil intent, to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth? Hold back Your anger, Moses implores, and reconsider the evil that You intend to do to the people. Remember, for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that You promised that their offspring would be like the stars of heaven. Scripture then tells us (Exodus 32:14): “Va’yee’nah’chem Hashem ahl ha’ra’ah ah’sher dee’ber la’ah’soht l’ah’mo.” And G-d reconsidered regarding the evil that He had declared to do to His people.

The Malbim expounds in great detail on Moses’ argument with G-d, adding much insight into the exchange between them. The Malbim suggests that when pleading before G-d, Moses realized that his previous prayer on behalf of the people had been effective, since G-d had said, Exodus 32:10, “Leave Me alone, stop badgering Me,” indicating that he has merit before G-d and that G-d was listening. This hint of success gives Moses the courage to plead further with G-d to withhold His destructive anger.

Arguing cogently and with great precision, Moses points out the fact that G-d was incorrect when He said to Moses (Exodus 32:7), “Your people have become corrupt!” In fact, says Moses, the sinners were not the Israelites, but rather the mixed multitude. Why then should You, G-d, be angry at Your people who were, at best, mistaken or misled by the mixed multitude? And if You, G-d, are angry that they didn’t speak out and protest against the mixed multitude, You must realize that it was only recently that You took them out of Egypt, a place steeped in idolatry. How then, can You, G-d, expect that, in only a few days, the people should be transformed entirely to the point where they are prepared to kill others who are worshiping idols that they were so accustomed to in Egypt?!

Continuing the argument, Moses says: You, G-d, took the people out of Egypt with Your great strength and outstretched arm and many miracles. The purpose of this was that the people of Israel would be Your people, and that Your name would be known throughout the nations, that they [the nations] should all know that You are G-d. You, G-d, cannot undo all that now! Not only would it invalidate everything that You have already done, it would result in a great desecration of Your name. For, after all, the Egyptians would say, “Why did the Hebrew G-d take them out with the evil intention of destroying them?”

Moses, in effect, explains that the Egyptians believed that there were two main gods, an evil god and a good god. The Egyptians would now say that it was the evil god who took the people out of Egypt. However, He did not kill them in Egypt, because he wanted to finish them off in the mountains, never to be buried, to be forever wiped off the face of the earth. Exodus 32:12: “Shoov may’cha’rohn ah’peh’chah v’hee’nah’chaym ahl ha’ra’ah l’ah’meh’chah.” Relent, says Moses, from Your flaring anger, and reconsider the evil against Your people.

Recalling the famous Midrash, Moses then argues that if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who could be compared to a table with three legs, could not sustain the people, how will I, Moses, a table with a single leg, be able to sustain them? The Malbim then proceeds to explain that “Va’yee’nah’chaym” means that G-d reconsidered the evil that He was going to do to His nation, and would forgive the nation–but not the mixed multitude.

We see, especially with the added insights of the Malbim, how effectively Moses argues with G-d on behalf of the people. Unfortunately, Moses does not achieve total forgiveness, but rather a stay of execution, until the peoples’ next rebellion!

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Parashat Parah. It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.