“Moses Argues with G-d to Save the Jewish People from Destruction”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, features the tragic saga of the Golden Calf, and G-d’s stated intention to destroy the Jewish people for worshiping the calf.

After 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai, Moses receives two tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d, to deliver to the people. Having miscalculated Moses’ scheduled return, and unwilling to wait for Moses any longer, the Israelites persuade Aaron to make a Golden Calf for them.

The people rise early in the morning to offer sacrifices to the calf. They eat and drink and revel around the Golden Calf, their new deity.

While on the mountain, G-d informs Moses of the sinful actions of the people, and of His intention to destroy them and make Moses into a great new nation. Moses implores G-d to forgive the people whom He took out of Egypt with a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm. Contending with G-d, Moses argues that the Egyptians will now say that G-d took the Hebrews out of Egypt with evil intent, to kill them in the mountains, and annihilate them from the face of the earth. Moses beseeches the Al-mighty to reconsider His decision to destroy the people.

Invoking the memory of the Patriarchs, Moses, in Exodus 32:13, says to G-d: זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ, Remember for the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, to whom You swore by Yourself, and You told them, “I shall increase your offspring like the stars of heaven. This entire land, of which I spoke, I shall give to your offspring, and it shall be their heritage forever.”

The Torah, in Exodus 32:14, then states, וַיִּנָּחֶם, השם, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ, And G-d reconsidered regarding the evil that He declared that He would do to His people.

Rashi summarizes Moses’ argument in the following manner:

“Remember for the sake of Abraham:” If they [the people of Israel] transgressed the Ten Commandments, their forefather, Abraham, was tested with ten trials, and has not yet received his reward for passing them. Give it to him, and let “the ten” cancel out “the ten.”

Rashi continues: “For Abraham, for Isaac, for Israel:” If they [the people of Israel] are doomed to burn, “remember for Abraham,” who gave himself over to be burned for Your sake in the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim (Mesopotamia). If they are doomed to killing by sword, “remember for Isaac,” who stretched out his neck to be slaughtered at the Akeidah. If they are doomed to exile, “remember for Jacob,” who went into exile, to Haran. And if [the Israelites] cannot be saved by [the Patriarchs’] merit, for what reason are You saying to me, “And I will make you into a great nation?” If a chair with three legs (meaning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) cannot stand before You at the time of Your anger, how much more so a chair with one leg [Moses alone].

This powerful argument, invoking what is traditionally known as זְכוּת אָבוֹת, “Zechut Avot,” the merits of the fathers, saves the day, and G-d forgives the Jewish people.

The argument of the merits of the fathers has long been invoked in Jewish history, to spare the people from harm and punishment.

One of the fiercest defenders of the Jewish people was the Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), often called the Ohev Yisrael (the Lover of Israel). Reb Levi Yitzchak was a leader, whose love for the people of Israel was absolutely unconditional, and who refused to allow anyone to speak badly of any Jew. Reb Levi Yitzchak always looked to give the benefit of the doubt to all, and was known to speak out to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people. Following the tradition of Abraham who argued with G-d to save the inhabitants of Sodom, Levi Yitzchak frequently challenged G-d, for allowing the Jewish people to suffer so often and so intensely.

Once, a tailor told Reb Levi Yitzchak about a conversation that he had with G-d about forgiveness of sins. The tailor confessed to the Al-mighty that he had, on occasion, committed minor sins, such as having kept leftover cloth for himself rather than return it to its owner, or, at times, had forgotten to recite a required blessing. “But You,” the tailor said to G-d, “You have committed great sins. You have taken babies from their mothers, and mothers from their babies. Let’s call it even! May You forgive me, and I will forgive You!” Hearing this story, Reb Levi Yitzchak became angry. “Why did you let G-d off so easily?” he demanded, “You might have forced G-d to redeem the entire world.”

There is a popular Yiddish prayer attributed to Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, known as “The Kaddish of Rebbe Levi Yitzchok” (A din Toyre mit Gott). It begins with the words:

“Good morning to You, Master of the Universe.
I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah of Berditchev,
I come to you with a Din Torah [lawsuit] from Your people, Israel.
What do you want of Your people, Israel?”

Levi Yitzchak compares the Jews, whose devotion to G-d is singular and unquestioned, to the other nations of the world, who instead devote themselves to human rulers of flesh and blood. Invoking the first line of the Kaddish that Jews recite in the event of death, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak demonstrates his and the Jewish peoples’ devotion to G-d, regardless of their hardships. Finally, Reb Levi Yitzchak insists that he will remain in the place where he stands, without moving, until G-d ends the Jews’ long exile from the land of Israel.

Despite Moses’ successful appeal to G-d to forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf, the suffering of the Jewish people, the exiles and the persecutions, continue unabated. Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev also realized that G-d would not end the exile until the people truly merited redemption. Nevertheless, by vocalizing his plea, Reb Levi Yitzchak put G-d on notice of the injustice that he and the Jewish people feel.

Just being able to articulate these ideas has been an important part of Jewish life throughout our peoples’ history, as we struggle to maintain our faith in G-d, in a world of much pain and suffering.

May you be blessed.