In the past two weeks we have begun to analyze the process involved in Bnei Yisrael’s recovery from the Cheit HaEigel. This is an especially relevant topic for this time of the year, as Yom Kippur is designated as the day of potential forgiveness since the second set of Luchot were presented on Yom Kippur. Receiving the second set of Luchot represents a rapprochement with the Ribbono Shel Olam, which is precisely what we seek to achieve on Yom Kippur.
We noted that in order to fully appreciate Yom Kippur and the recitation of the Thirteen Middot of Rachamim (mercy), we must carefully examine the events leading up to the first Yom Kippur – the process of Bnei Yisrael recovering from the Cheit HaEigel. We suggested that we can discern six stages involved in this process. The first step involved Moshe Rabbeinu presenting arguments that spared Bnei Yisrael from immediate annihilation but did not restore our relationship with Hashem. The second step involved Moshe Rabbeinu taking drastic steps to dramatically demonstrate to Bnei Yisrael the profundity of their sin. We noted that Bnei Yisrael cooperated with Moshe Rabbeinu, acknowledging the fact that they sinned. This week we shall outline what appear to be stages three, four, and five of the process of our recovery from one our most severe sins ever, the Cheit HaEigel.
Stage Three – Moshe Rabbeinu’s Failed Offer
Once Moshe Rabbeinu has purged Bnei Yisrael of the major players in the Cheit HaEigel debacle, he believes that the time is ripe to secure complete forgiveness from Hashem and to restore the relationship between Him and Bnei Yisrael. Let us carefully examine precisely how Moshe Rabbeinu makes this attempt and why it fails.
Moshe Rabbeinu informs Bnei Yisrael that he will ascend to Hashem and seek forgiveness (32:30). It is highly instructive to note that Moshe tells the nation, “maybe I will succeed in obtaining atonement for your sin.” This teaches us a very fundamental point regarding prayer and our relationship with Hashem (this approach is based on a talk that Rav Yuval Sherlow presented in 1983 at Yeshivat Har Etzion). We are not entitled to atonement and we should not expect it as a right. It is a privilege that Hashem bestows upon us if He deems us to be deserving of it.
We echo this point in Selichot when we utter the refrain, “Ulai Yachos Am Ani Ve’Evyon, Ulai Yerachem.” Our attitude during the Yamim Nora’im period should be that maybe Hashem will forgive us. Indeed, we read in the Haftara for Mincha on Yom Kippur that the king of Nineveh, in exhorting his subjects to repent, told them, “Who knows? Maybe God will relent and we will not perish,” reflecting the appropriate attitude that we are not guaranteed forgiveness from Hashem for our sins (also note the refrain of “Kulai Hai VeUlai” in Chagigah 4b).
Meanwhile, Moshe Rabbeinu ascends to Hashem and makes the following offer to Hashem. He says (32:32 following Ramban’s explanation; also see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Seforno) that if Hashem cannot forgive Bnei Yisrael, He should take Moshe instead and he will suffer on their behalf. Hashem rejects this offer, explaining that Hashem judges fairly and acts based on Middah Kenegged Middah. Hashem rewards those who deserve it and punishes those who deserve it. This is a fundamental and immutable Torah principle – Hashem acts fairly and gives everyone what he or she deserves, and a righteous person cannot suffer on behalf of a sinner in order to excuse the latter from punishment. Hashem cannot function in any other manner, as it is profoundly unfair to make one person suffer on behalf of another. (See Bereishit 18:25, Devarim 32:4, and Tehillim 145:17, which stress that Hashem acts only in an entirely just and fair manner.)
Hashem, though, makes a counter offer to Moshe Rabbeinu at this point. Hashem apparently takes note of Bnei Yisrael’s positive response to Moshe’s harsh actions on the day he returned to the camp, and deems them worthy of restoring His relationship with them, at least on a partial basis.
Hashem says to Moshe Rabbeinu (32:34 and 33:1-3 and 5) that he may bring the nation to Eretz Yisrael. However, He will not accompany them into the Land since the people are undeserving. Rather, He says, He will send one of His angels to escort the nation and help them conquer the Land. Hashem explains that He foresees that the people will once again sin and be deserving of severe punishment. The solution to this problem, He says, is for Him to distance Himself from us, because if He is close to us we will not survive. The closer we are to Hashem, the more demanding He is of us, and thus it is imperative for Hashem to distance himself from us.
Moreover, Hashem at this point (32:35) sends a plague that strikes some of the less prominent participants in the Cheit HaEigel (see Rashi to 32:35). Moshe Rabbeinu seems to have thought that it would be sufficient to eliminate the most prominent sinners at the Cheit HaEigel. Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu should be seen as compassionate in his purge of the three thousand ringleaders of the Cheit HaEigel. He might have reasoned that Hashem might spare the less grievous sinners if he performs this task instead of Hashem. However, Hashem does not feel this to be just and eliminates the less prominent sinners as well.
Stage Four – Bnei Yisrael Improve
Obviously, Bnei Yisrael do not demonstrate in one day that they are worthy of full forgiveness from Hashem. Thus, Hashem cannot, in all fairness, offer anything better than to send an angel to accompany us to Eretz Yisrael. Full forgiveness can come only if Bnei Yisrael demonstrate that they deserve a more generous offer from Hashem. Ultimately, though, Hashem does fully restore our relationship with Him and agrees to bring us into Eretz Yisrael directly, and not through an intermediary. It is highly unlikely that Moshe Rabbeinu’s Tefillot alone (see Devarim 9:18-29) motivate Hashem to restore His connection with us. Accordingly, we must search the text of the Chumash to see if we can discern any improvement in Bnei Yisrael’s behavior.
First, we find in Shemot 33:4 that Bnei Yisrael are profoundly upset that Hashem will not directly accompany them to Eretz Yisrael. This demonstrates that they acknowledge their sin and its futility. They recognize the point made by the Navi Hoshea (14:2, which we read on Shabbat Shuvah) that our sins have caused us to stumble and fail. We may have thought, as Rav Soloveitchik explains in Al HaTeshuva, that our sins would bring us happiness or at least not harm us. Now we realize, though, the grave consequences of sin.
Moreover, many people would not mind if they could achieve their goals even if Hashem would remain distant from them. Am Yisrael, however, very much wants a close relationship with Hashem and is very disturbed by its absence. The Ramban (to 33:5) argues that this reflects well on Bnei Yisrael after the Cheit HaEigel, and it seems to show that they have internalized the messages that Moshe sought to impart to them on the day he returned to the camp.
A second indication of Bnei Yisrael’s improvement is that they fully comply with the order to remove the jewelry received at Har Sinai. The Ramban (ibid.) notes that this also shows that Bnei Yisrael are in the process of Teshuva and that they regret their participation in the Cheit HaEigel.
Third, the Pasuk (33:7) records that those who seek Hashem go to the Ohel Moed where Moshe and Hashem communicate. This appears to imply that there are Jews who are actively seeking out Hashem and who make an effort to come close to Him (see Ramban to 33:7 for an important discussion about when does this seeking occur).
Finally, the Torah also describes the awe and respect that Bnei Yisrael demonstrated towards Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem (33:9-10), yet another sign of their progress in recovering.
Stage Five – Moshe Rabbeinu Advocates for Bnei Yisrael
We see that Bnei Yisrael have made considerable progress in their recovery from the Cheit HaEigel. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu is able to offer a new argument to Hashem (33:13): “See that this is Your nation.” Heretofore Moshe has only been able to marshal arguments that do not depend on the worthiness of the nation, such as Zechut Avot and the Chillul Hashem issue. Now that we have improved, Moshe Rabbeinu can say to Hashem that the people are truly devoted to Him.
Moreover, the fact that in stage three, Hashem told Moshe regarding Bnei Yisrael, “And I shall know what I shall do to you” (33:5) seems to signal to Moshe Rabbeinu once again (recall 32:10) that Hashem is willing to reconsider His unwillingness to directly escort Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. Thus, in stage five Moshe is emboldened to present a startling argument to Hashem based on the improvements in Bnei Yisrael’s behavior. He states (33:15; see the comments of Seforno thereupon) that if Hashem will not directly accompany us to Eretz Yisrael, we will not leave the Midbar! As Rav Menachem Leibtag explains, we are engaging in a sit-down strike of sorts, boldly attempting to try to convince Hashem to restore our connection to Him.
Furthermore, Moshe Rabbeinu chooses at this point to say to Hashem that he wants to “see Your glory” and “know You” (33:18 and 13). Rav Yonatan Grossman (in a Shiur that is available on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu’s request is not a digression but is entirely consistent with his efforts to fully restore Hashem’s connection with Am Yisrael. Indeed, one cannot construe Moshe Rabbeinu’s plea to see and know Hashem as distinct from his efforts to secure full atonement for Bnei Yisrael, as Pesukim 33:12-33 clearly show that these two topics are closely intertwined. Similarly, Hashem’s partially granting Moshe’s request to see and know Him is intertwined with Hashem’s granting full forgiveness to Bnei Yisrael.
Rav Grossman explains that Moshe Rabbeinu sought to reenact the Brit Bein Habetarim, in which Hashem made a covenant with Avraham Avinu. He notes the many parallels between the incident of Hashem passing before Moshe Rabbeinu and His passing between the pieces of animals in the Brit Bein Habetarim to seal the covenant. Since the gold that we received as a result of the Brit Bein Habetarim was abused to create the Eigel HaZahav (as we explained in the first part of this series), the Brit had to be renewed.
Hashem accepts Moshe Rabbeinu’s arguments and renews the Brit Bein Habetarim. He also has agreed to adopt a new mode of relating to Am Yisrael that will facilitate His accompanying us to Eretz Yisrael (33:19 and see Rashi’s comments thereupon). Next week, we shall analyze the climax of our recovery from the Cheit HaEigel – our receiving the second set of Luchot and Hashem’s proclaiming the Thirteen Attributes of Rachamim.