“Moses Pleads on Behalf of the People of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, features the infamous sin of the Golden Calf.

The Al-mighty is so angry with the People of Israel that He wishes to destroy them and make a new nation out of Moses. Moses, however, pleads with G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, eventually convincing G-d not to destroy them.

In Exodus 32:11-13, the Torah records Moses’ extremely moving appeal:

וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקָיו, and Moses pleaded before the Lord his G-d, and said, “Why, Lord, should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should Egypt say: ‘With evil intent did He [G-d] take them out, to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from the face of the earth?’ Relent from Your flaring anger and reconsider regarding the evil against Your people. 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, and this entire land of which I spoke, I shall give to your offspring and it shall be their heritage forever.’”

At this point, the Torah in Exodus 32:14, reports that the Al-mighty reconsidered the evil and the punishment that He intended to visit upon His people.

Rashi, citing Tanchuma 24 and Shemot Rabba 44:4, elucidates the finer points of the argument that Moses presented to the Al-mighty, and explains why Moses invoked the merits of each of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses says, “If You, G-d, are angry because the people have transgressed the Ten Commandments, remember that their forefather Abraham was tested with ten trials and he has not yet received his reward for passing them. Give Abraham his reward by allowing these ‘ten’ to cancel out those ‘ten.’”

Furthermore, says Rashi, Moses argued that if the Children of Israel are doomed to burning because of their sin, remember that Abraham gave himself over to be burned for Your sake in the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim.

Moses persisted and said to G-d, “If the People of Israel are fated to be killed by the sword, remember that Isaac stretched out his neck to be slaughtered at the Akeidah. And, if the people of Israel are condemned to exile, remember that Jacob went into exile to Haran.”

Unwilling to concede, Moses continued arguing, saying that if the Israelites cannot be saved by recalling the patriarchs’ merit, how then can You [G-d] say to me, ‘and I will make you (Moses) into a great nation’? If a chair with three legs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] cannot stand before You at the time of Your anger, how will a chair with one leg [Moses] be able to stand?

In this manner, Moses invokes זְכוּת אָבוֹת, the great merits of the patriarchs, asking G-d to consider those merits and save his brothers and sisters who had sinned.

Moses’ defense of the People of Israel won the day for the Israelites who were taken out of Egypt. More importantly, his plea to G-d on behalf of the people has served as a paradigm for many righteous leaders of Israel who have intervened on behalf of the People of Israel throughout the generations in the hope of assuaging G-d’s wrath.

Perhaps no Jewish leader since the time of Moses has been more identified as an אוֹהֵב יִשְׂרָאֵל, a great lover of the People of Israel, than the famed Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809, one of the most influential Chassidic leaders in central Poland and the Ukraine).

It is said that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev actually summoned G-d to a “Din Torah” (a religious trial) on numerous occasions, demanding that the Al-mighty forgive His people. On one occasion, on Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yitzchak announced that he was prepared to conduct a public accounting, comparing the trespasses of the People of Israel with the trespasses of the Al-mighty Himself.

Admitting that the people of his community had indeed sinned, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak took out his notebook to enumerate the sins: evil speech, sins of coveting, dishonesty in business, being disrespectful to parents, to rabbis, to the Torah. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, ashamed by the peoples’ actions, nevertheless pronounced a lengthy list of the sins that the people had committed.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak then began to recall the terrible tragedies that had befallen members of his community. He cited Meir, the farmer whose crop had withered because of drought, and Yossele’s cow that had died from disease. Shlomo, the wagon driver’s horse, had gone lame. Miriam, a mother of eight, had been widowed of her husband, and little Shmulek who had been beaten unconscious in a pogrom, and never fully recovered.

Reb Levi Yitzchak then declared that he was prepared to forgive the Al-mighty if He would agree to forgive the sins of the people.

Ultimately, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev expressed his absolute faith in G-d and pronounced G-d’s glory. His exalted expressions of faith are articulated in what is known as “Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Kaddish.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Kaddish

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”
Father, sweet Father in Heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.

Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.”

Moses’ plea on behalf of the People of Israel was a “game-changer.” Had it not been for Moses’ appeal to forgive the Children of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf, there would have been no appeals to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev or from any of the hundreds, indeed thousands, of rabbis and petitioners throughout the generations.

It is very likely, that it is due only to the merit of Moses, that the Jewish people have been consistently graced with G-d’s forgiveness.

May you be blessed.