It is sometimes challenging for us to understand what we seek to accomplish with the Selichot that we recite before and during Yom Kippur, specifically in regard to the thirteen Middot of Rachamim (thirteen aspects of Divine mercy) that are the centerpiece and focal point of the Selichot. One could get the impression that these thirteen attributes are a sort of magical formula that, according to our tradition, somehow convinces Hashem to judge us more leniently. Indeed, the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 17b) records that Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that anytime we sin, we should recite the thirteen Middot and He will forgive us.
Our goal in this series of essays is to analyze the thirteen Middot of mercy in their broader context – our nation’s recovery from Cheit HaEigel – in order to appreciate their message and objective. We seek to analyze and present the recovery of Bnei Yisrael from Cheit HaEigel as a precedent and model for what is expected from us both before and during Yom Kippur. Indeed, Chazal (Taanit 30b) teach that Yom Kippur was the day on which Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Sinai with the second set of Luchot, an action that expresses our complete recovery from Cheit HaEigel. This is why Yom Kippur is the day that Hashem designated for all generations of Jews to serve as the climax of our efforts to do Teshuva (see Ran to Rosh Hashana, 12b in the pages of the Rif, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Shiurim LeZecher Abba Mori Z”L 1:176-178). Accordingly, if we wish to discover a deeper appreciation of the meaning and significance of Yom Kippur, we must carefully examine the meaning of the very first Yom Kippur.
The Rishonim debate what precisely was the sin of the Cheit HaEigel. Rashi (Shemot 32:1 s.v. Asher Yeilchu and Asher He’elanu) seems to believe that we worshipped actual Avodah Zarah, whereas Rabi Yehuda Halevi (Kuzari (1:97) argues that the Eigel was simply a (forbidden) symbol intended to help us in our service of Hashem.
I recall that Rav Hayyim Angel noted (in a Shiur that he delivered at the Torah Academy of Bergen County) that a careful examination of Shemot 32:1-6 seems to yield proofs to both positions. It is possible to suggest that both Rashi and Rabi Yehuda Halevi are correct, that some worshipped the Eigel as a symbol connecting them to Hashem while others worshipped and regarded it as pure Avodah Zarah (see Chizkuni to 32:28). For a full analysis of this issue, see Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Chadashim BeSeifer Shemot, pp. 395-400.
In any event, Hashem regarded Cheit HaEigel as a grievous sin to the extent that Bnei Yisrael deserved to be destroyed (Shemot 32:10). My Talmid Roni Kaplan notes that the entire purpose in Bnei Yisrael’s leaving Mitzrayim and eventually entering Eretz Yisrael was to fulfill the Brit Bein Habetarim that Hashem made with Avraham Avinu (Bereishit Chapter 15). The Brit Bein Habetarim is essentially the roadmap for Jewish history in general, but especially for the generation that left Mitzrayim.
Roni notes that a component of the Brit Bein Habetarim was that we would leave Mitzrayim with great riches. A function of these riches was to provide dignity and an economic future for the Israelites so that they could establish a model nation in Eretz Yisrael (see further discussion of this issue in Nechama Leibowitz ad. loc. pp.129-134). However, Bnei Yisrael used these riches, which they had received in Mitzrayim as a fulfillment of the Brit, to build the Eigel, an item that was antithetical to the message of Avraham Avinu and the raison d’etre (purpose for existing) of Am Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael thus abused the Brit Bein Habetarim and strayed from the roadmap that Hashem had given them so long ago. (Note how Moshe Rabbeinu, as explained by the Midrash cited by Rashi to 32:31, seeks to find somewhat of an argument to defend Bnei Yisrael from this specific error.)
Accordingly, it is understandable that Hashem concluded that we deserved to be destroyed. The primary reason Hashem performed miracles and allowed Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu to have children was to build a nation that would communicate to the world the message that Avraham and Sarah sought to communicate as individuals (we can understand the Radak to Bereishit 25:20 in light of this point). If we do not act in accordance with our mandate for existing, we simply do not deserve to exist.
In fact, this is the reason, Roni explains, that Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “I will make you into a great nation,” using the exact language that He used with Avraham Avinu (Bereishit 12:2). Only Moshe Rabbeinu deserves to live, since he has not veered from the path of Avraham Avinu. We should note, though, that there are certainly others, such as Yehoshua, who have not deviated from the path of Avraham Avinu. However, they still deserve to be destroyed by virtue of belonging to the community that sinned (see Rashi to Bereishit 6:13 s.v. Keitz).
Moshe Rabbeinu, in what Rav Moshe Lichtenstein (in his work entitled Tzir Vatzon) aptly notes is his greatest moment, manages to convince Hashem not to destroy the Israelite nation, to bring them to Eretz Yisrael, and (most importantly) to restore the relationship between Himself and Bnei Yisrael. He was not able, however, to achieve this all in one fell swoop. Instead, there was a somewhat complex process involved in this accomplishment. It seems that we can identify six stages in this process that we shall seek to identify and analyze in some depth.
Stage One – Rescue from Destruction
Initially, Hashem informs Moshe Rabbeinu that He plans to destroy the Israelite nation. However, He signals to Moshe Rabbeinu that this decision is negotiable. Hashem tells Moshe, “And now leave Me and I will destroy them and make you a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Rashi, citing Chazal, notes that Hashem clearly implies that He will not destroy the nation if Moshe Rabbeinu does not “leave Him alone.”
One may ask why Hashem acts in a manner that does not seem straightforward. We may suggest that Hashem wants to communicate a complex message. It appears that Hashem wishes to say that, strictly speaking, Bnei Yisrael deserve to be destroyed. On the other hand, He also wishes to say that there is room for them to recover from this ugly incident. It is vitally important for Hashem to inform us that we deserve to be destroyed because of Cheit HaEigel, because we need to hear the unambiguous message that Cheit HaEigel was an absolutely inexcusable sin, and that although we might be able to recover from it, we will probably not be able to recover if the sin is repeated. Even Middat HaRachamim (Hashem acting compassionately) has its limits (Rashi’s comments to Shemot 32:34 s.v. Uvyom Pokdi, might be understood in light of this insight). We should note, though, that some of Hashem’s decrees are not subject to negotiation, such as His decision that Moshe Rabbeinu may not enter Eretz Yisrael (see Devarim 3:26).
Moshe Rabbeinu, though, is posed with the enormous challenge of finding arguments to defend Bnei Yisrael, after Hashem has specifically stated that they are an unworthy people. Moshe marshals two basic arguments to defend Bnei Yisrael, and we invoke these arguments in our Tefillot throughout the year, especially during Selichot.
First, Moshe Rabbeinu invokes a Chillul Hashem argument (Shemot 32:11-13). He argues that it would constitute a Chillul Hashem if Hashem were to destroy the Jewish People at this point, since the Egyptians would interpret Hashem’s actions as demonstrating His inability to bring Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, pagans would quite likely make such an argument, as it fits their understanding of how gods function. They would not believe that Hashem was punishing people for sinning, as divine justice is an alien concept to pagans, who believe that gods behave capriciously and act as they please. In the pagan worldview, different gods control different parts of the world. Thus, they would interpret Hashem’s destroying of the Israelites as demonstrating that while Hashem controls Egypt and the Sinai desert, His sphere of influence ends at the border of the land of Canaan.
This would constitute a grave Chillul Hashem because a major component of the Yetziat Mitzrayim process was the education of the Egyptian people (and by extension much of the rest of the world, as Egypt was the center of civilization at that time; see Meshech Chochmah to Shemot 7:3) about Hashem. They were forced to learn that He punishes in a manner that is consistent with one’s actions (Middah Kenegged Middah) and that He controls the entire universe (see Shemot 10:1-2 and compare Shemot 5:2 with Shemot 10:32; see the Ramban’s comments at the conclusion of Parashat Bo, and Nechama Leibowitz ad. loc. pp.124-128).
We follow Moshe Rabbeinu’s example and use a Chillul Hashem argument in our Tefillot. In Avinu Makeinu, we plead, “Aseih Lemaancha Im Lo Lemaaneinu,” “Act in Your own interest if we are undeserving.” After Shemoneh Esrei, we ask Hashem, “Aseih Lemaan Shemecha,” pleading that He should act for His own sake, in case He regards us as unworthy.
The second argument that Moshe Rabbeinu uses (Shemot 32:13) is that of Zechut Avot. Although the Israelites who left Mitzrayim themselves lack merits, they nonetheless descend from individuals who are worthy. Indeed, Hashem specifically states in the Asseret HaDibrot (Shemot 20:6) that He rewards the descendants of the righteous for the good deeds of their ancestors. An important lesson of the Torah is that the actions of someone in one generation, whether good or bad, can have extraordinary impact – either good or bad – on future generations. Thus, it is appropriate for Moshe Rabbeinu to appeal to Zechut Avot in the hope of saving Am Yisrael.
We should note that one may appeal to Zechut Avot only if one identifies with the Avot. Indeed, this might be the reason Moshe Rabbeinu does not appeal to Zechut Avot after Cheit HaMeraglim (Bemidbar 14:13-19). Perhaps Bnei Yisrael repudiated their connection to the Avot by adamantly refusing to enter Eretz Yisrael, and thereby severed their ideological connection to the Avot to the point that Zechut Avot could not be invoked on their behalf. After Cheit HaEigel, though, Bnei Yisrael had not directly rejected the Avot and thus remained worthy of Zechut Avot.
We, too, invoke Zechut Avot in our Tefillot throughout the year, particularly in our recitation of the Selichot. It is certainly emphasized on Rosh Hashana, when we seek to invoke the merit of Akeidat Yitzchak to be considered on our behalf (see, for example, Rosh Hashana 16a and Rashi to Megillah 31a s.v. Maftirin BeChanah).
Hashem ultimately accepts Moshe Rabbeinu’s argument and reverses His decision to destroy Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 32:14). However, at this point He has not forgiven Bnei Yisrael; He has merely resolved not to destroy them. Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu must take further action in order to restore the relationship between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael.
Next week, IY”H and B”N, we shall continue outlining the other five stages of recovery from Cheit HaEigel.