In Parashat Ki Tisa, we read about the tragic downfall of Bnei Yisrael due to the Cheit HaEigel. After relating to Moshe that the nation had sinned grievously by constructing the Eigel HaZahav and worshipping it, the Torah states, “VaYomer Hashem El Moshe Ra’iti Et HaAm HaZeh VeHineih Am Kesheih Oref Hu,” “And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘I have seen this people and behold! It is a stiff-necked people’” (Shemot 32:9). What exactly does it mean to be an “Am Kesheih Oref” and how does it affect Hashem’s anger and eventual forgiveness towards Bnei Yisrael?
Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Kesheih Oref) and Seforno (ad loc. s.v. VeHineih Am Kesheih Oref Hu) explain that Kesheih Oref describes a trait that causes a person to turn away from anyone admonishing him and to refuse to heed calls to repentance. Thus, they understand the Pasuk to be establishing two main points. First Hashem informs Moshe Rabbeinu of the Jews’ sin, which will engender a severe punishment. Following an actual or implied plea for mercy with a promise of repentance and rehabilitation issued by Moshe, Hashem refuses, stating, “Am Kesheih Oref Hu,” indicating that the people’s stiff-necked rejection of rebuke and clinging to their evil ways have made them unsuitable for repentance. Therefore, Hashem states that He will annihilate them (32:10).
According to this interpretation, however, it is very difficult to understand a subsequent Pasuk. Immediately after enumerating Hashem’s Thirteen Middot HaRachamim (Attributes of Mercy), Moshe beseeches Hashem, saying, “Yeilech Na Hashem BeKirbeinu Ki Am Kesheih Oref Hu VeSalachta LaAvoneinu,” “Let Hashem go among us for it is a stiff-necked people; and You shall forgive our iniquity” (34:9). What was Moshe’s intent in invoking the very same argument that solidified Hashem’s anger and provoked Him to threaten Bnei Yisrael with destruction? Based on Rashi and Seforno, it is impossible that Moshe would state this to promote Hashem’s mercy!
Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Yeilech Na Hashem BeKirbeinu) explains that the word “Ki” in this Pasuk means “even though”, not “because,” meaning to say that even though Bnei Yisrael are a stiff-necked people, Hashem should nevertheless have mercy on them. In a similar vein, Seforno (ad loc. s.v. Ki Am Kesheih Oref Hu) explains that Moshe is asking that Hashem remain in Bnei Yisrael’s midst despite His presence resulting in harsher punishment. Although Hashem’s absence prevents future punishment, Moshe still believes that His presence is necessary. Even though Bnei Yisrael would continue to sin, they needed Hashem because, although He would punish them, only He could provide the fairness and mercy necessary to ultimately forgive them. Without Hashem, no atonement could ever be attained.
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh (ad loc. s.v. Yeilech Ki Am) presents a novel interpretation. He highlights the fact that the latter Pasuk uses Hashem’s name A-D-N-Y, which signifies His mastery, rather than the name Y-K-V-K, which signifies mercy. He therefore proposes that when Moshe hears the Thirteen Middot HaRachamim and realizes the extent of Hashem’s mercy and kindness, he fears that the Middah of Rachamanut (mercy) would be dangerous for a stiff-necked people, for without any fear of justice, they would be wanton in their sinfulness. Moshe Rabbeinu therefore requests that Hashem balance the Middot of Din and Rachamim. On the one hand, “Yeilech Na Hashem BeKirbeinu”, let the Midat HaDin be among Bnei Yisrael, so that the nation is aware of its obligations. On the other hand, Hashem should also miantain his Midat HaRachamim, and Moshe therefore requests, “VeSalachta LeAvoneinu.” The common denominator between all Meforashim is that discipline is a necessary and requisite part of our lives. We cannot always be treated with mercy and kindness, without fear of punishment or consequences. As Seforno states, without Hashem and his ability to punish us, we won’t get punished nor receive atonement. It is ultimately to our benefit to receive rebuke in order to ultimately grow and learn from our experiences.