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(Moses said to G-d): “Show me Your glory.”
(G-d said to Moses): “I will make all My goodness pass before you… I shall show favor to whom I shall show favor, and I shall show mercy to whom I shall show mercy.”
(G-d further said to Moses): “You will not be able to see My face. For no human may see My face and live.” (33:18-20)
This dialogue took place after G-d had heeded Moses’ pleas and agreed to continue to guide the Israelites in the same manner as He had done before the Sin of the Golden Calf. As Moses perceived that this moment of forgiveness was the time of His goodwill (Rashi to 33:18), he wanted to make the best of that instant by asking to come closer to Him - through seeing His glory.
The response seems very strange and prompts the following questions:
1. The words, “I shall show favor to whom I show favor, and I shall show mercy to whom I shall show mercy” appear to contradict what G-d instructed Moses to deliver to the Israelites some forty years later – just before his death:
“The Rock! (G-d). Perfect is His work, for all His ways are justice.
A G-d of faith and without iniquity, righteous and upright is He.” (Deut. 32:4).
In former quotation, He states that He alone decides on people’s destinies – irrespective of their conduct. However, before Moses’ death He proclaimed that He has the exclusive role in determining the fate of the Israelites, and He does so with fairness and justice.
2. How can the words “I shall show favor to whom I show favor, and I shall show mercy to those whom I shall show mercy” be examples of fairness - “all my goodness” - earlier in that same verse?
3. In addition, the Talmud (Berachot 7a) brings the tradition that Moses’ request to see G-d’s glory included wanting to know why there are righteous people who suffer and wicked people who prosper. What had that got to do with His partially having forgiven the Sin of the Golden Calf?
A clue to understanding the episode may found a few verses later, where G-d called to Moses, teaching him the right way to pray (Ibn Ezra), as He had promised (33:19) – in the form of His ‘Thirteen Attributes’. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) brings the tradition that G-d appeared to Moses wrapped in a tallit as one who leads the congregation in prayer, and He showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him, “Whenever Israel sins, let them perform before me this order of prayer, and I shall forgive them”. A tallit around the head blocks out outside distractions, and helps a person to concentrate. G-d was teaching Moses that when people concentrate on praying, G-d concentrates on fulfilling their requests.
According to the tradition brought by Rabeinu Tam (Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 17b, Tosafot s.v. Shalosh Esreh), the meanings of the final words of the ‘Thirteen Attributes’ are, ‘Forgiver of avon (sin done on purpose, out of weakness), pesha (sin done on purpose – with the intention of angering of G-d), and chata’a (chet) (sin done out of carelessness or apathy). In all three cases, ve-nakeh lo yenakeh – literally, ‘He cleanses, but He does not cleanse’. This means that only when a person sincerely repents, G-d removes his sin so that its effect vanishes (c.f. Ez. 18:21-22); otherwise He does not. (S’forno goes further – interpreting this expression to mean that G-d fully forgives those who repent out of love, but only partially forgives those who repent for fear of Divine retribution.)
These explanations are crucial to understanding the way Moses related to the Sin of the Golden Calf. In all instances where he refers to that Sin he uses the word chet , and never avon or pesha. This is significant in that the word chet denotes a sin that was rooted in carelessness, rather than any deliberate attempt to flout G-d’s laws against idol worship.
Moses’ seeing the Golden Calf as an act of carelessness is easier to understand in the light of a tradition brought by the Talmud (Shabbat 89a). It implies that the catastrophe of the Golden calf was precipitated by a tragic error. Moses ascended Mount Sinai on the seventh day of Sivan for forty days and forty nights. The people thought the day of his ascent counted as the first day of the forty, and therefore he would return on the sixteenth of Tammuz. That was a mistake. Moses meant that he would be away for a full forty days and forty nights – thus he would only arrive back on the seventeenth. When noon of the sixteenth came and there was no sign of Moses, the people began to panic. Satan seized the opportunity and created an illusion of darkness and turmoil, and showed them an image of a dead Moses being carried in Heaven. That, according to this tradition, is the meaning of ‘The people saw that Moses was late in coming down the mountain’.
Thus the roots of the Sin of the Golden calf belonged to the least severe scenario of breaking the Torah – namely ‘carelessness’. That explains why that sin was described throughout the text as chet and never as avon or pesha. That also explains why Moses used that word in the people’s favor: “Behold this people sinned a great chet and made themselves an idol out of gold… and now… forgive their sins (32:31-2).” The chet was great, but it was still only a chet, not an avon or pesha.
However – and this is the essential – part of the message from G-d to Moses was that the chet needed repentance in the same way as the more obvious sins coming under the categories of avon and pesha. The symbol of the tallit over the head - representing utter sincerity and concentration on prayer and repentance - was not only relevant to avon and pehsa, but also to chet. As with avon and pesha, He only forgives with full repentance (ve-nakeh lo ye-nakeh).
For carelessness indicates a weakness in one’s relationship with the Almighty in the realm of observing His commandments. Take the following analogy. A non-swimming child falls into the deep end of the pool and has to be given artificial resuscitation by the lifeguard. The parents had been idly chatting with friends and temporarily had their eyes off the child. Being deep in conversation and thus oblivious to their responsibilities was an act of carelessness. That would hardly reduce their liabilities even though nobody would accuse them of having been malicious towards their child. Nevertheless – had they really shown sufficient care for their child, he would have never fallen into the pool in the first place. Similarly, had the rank and file of the Israelites shown the faith and closeness that was required of them in following the Revelation at Mount Sinai, they would have been able to protest at and prevent the Sin of the Golden Calf having taken place.
The principle in the above story helps to explain answer the initial questions. In G-d showing ‘all His goodness’ through His Thirteen Attributes, he was not giving a free pardon. By stating that chet needed the same type of repentance as avon and pesha, He implied that to receive His goodness one had to be so close to Him that one would recoil from sinning out of carelessness to the same degree as on purpose. Those were the standards G-d expected of His chosen people following the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
Thus G-d meant by ‘I shall show favor to whom I shall show favor, and I shall show mercy to whom I shall show mercy’ that only He knew who was sufficiently close to Him to merit ‘all His goodness’. Such people would have repented so completely that they would never bring themselves into a situation where they would be likely to sin even through carelessness. In that way G-d would be truly just – in the capacity of ‘He that knows… their hearts and understands all their deeds’ (Psalm 33:15). Moses – by being a mere mortal – did not know the true spiritual situation of each one of the Israelites. Thus Moses misunderstood G-d when He said to him that He would favor those He would favor. That is why he asked G-d why it is that the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous suffer. But G-d’s reply was that He did not act out of mere favoritism. G-d, as he told Moses, had ‘skills’ human beings could never reach – because being able to fully understand the deepest thoughts of individual people would lift him out of the mortal sphere and bring him too close to the Creator – in a way that He did not design Man to reach…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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