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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.
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…
QUESTIONS ON RASHI AND OTHER COMMENTATORS ON PARASHAT KI-TISA
1. The text states that the count of the Israelites was to be made using half-shekels. How come, according to the Ramban, that King David (Sam. II 24) erred when he counted the Israelites?
2. Why, according to the S'forno, is the command for making the laver placed later in the Torah than the command of making the other vessels in the Tabernacle?
3. The spices for the Ketoret did not only include sweet smelling herbs, but also substances with an evil odor - such as galbanum ('chelbena' 30:34). What, according to Rashi, may be learnt from having those unpleasant herbs in the ketoret?
4. G-d states the He filled Betzalel, the builder of the Mishkan, 'with wisdom, insight, and knowledge'. (31:3) What do those three terms mean according to Rashi?
5. How does the S'forno understand the Seventh Day being described as not merely 'shabbat', but as 'shabbat shabaton'? (31:16)
6. What, according to Rashi, was the nature of Moses' 'delay' (32:1) in returning to the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai?
7. What rationale did Moses use in smashing the Tablets, according to Rashi?
8. G-d states that He will pass 'all My goodness' (33:19) before Moses. What is the meaning of that goodness according to Rashi?
9. The section detailing the prohibition of idolatry is immediately followed with the agricultural laws of the Festivals. What is the connection between the two, according to the S'forno?
10. Following Rashi, what connection may be made between the way Moses taught the Torah after he received the Second Tablets, and the advice that Jethro gave to him, recorded in 18:17-23?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON RASHI AND OTHER COMMENTATORS ON PARASHAT KI-TISA
1. The Ramban gives two explanations - one here, and one to Num. 1:3. The meaning of this passage is that whenever a count is made of the Israelites, it should be made using the half-shekel. King David erred in understanding that this law only applied to the counts made by Moses. However, in Num. 1:3 he gives a different explanation. There, he claims that David did actually use coins or some other method to avoid a direct count, but he was punished because he did not have a compelling reason to conduct a census in the first place.
[My own suggestion: The reason for the count to involve the half shekel is that when a nation is counted, it as though all the people are coming together. That is a hint that whenever people come together for any reason, it should include an element for the common good - such as raising money for a worthy cause.]
2. According to the S'forno, the command for making the laver is placed later in the Torah because its function was different from the other vessels in the Tabernacle. The other parts and vessels caused the Divine Presence to rest on the Tabernacle, whereas the laver enabled the Priests to carry out the Divine Service.
3. According to Rashi, unpleasant herbs are included in the ketoret to express the ideal of unity amongst the Israelites. That galbanum is included indicates that sinners should be included with the community in its prayers. Both the righteous and the sinner have a share in the service of G-d.
4. Following Rashi, wisdom is knowledge acquired from the experience of others, insight is the derivation of new ideas and deductions from one's wisdom, and knowledge [in the context of building the Tabernacle] is Divine inspiration.
5. The use of the words 'shabbat shabaton' indicate two sides of the Shabbat. One does not keep Shabbat by just abstaining from 'melacha', but through being involved in sacred activities in honor of the Almighty.
6. The delay of Moses' return was not a delay at all, but a miscalculation on the part of the Israelites. Following Rashi, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai on the seventh of Sivan, saying he would be there for forty days, and that he would return in the morning. The people erred in counting his day of ascent as one of those forty days, whereas the forty days were made up of complete days only. Therefore Moses' delay was of one day - he did not return on the sixteenth of Tammuz, as expected, but on the seventeenth of Tammuz. And the story of the building of the golden calf took place in that final twenty-four hour period.
7. According to Rashi, his decision to smash the Tablets was based on the following argument. If a heretic may not partake in the Passover offering (12:41), how much more so should a nation of heretics (namely those who took part, and those who did not protest in the making of the Golden Calf) be patently unworthy of receiving the entire Torah.
8. 'All G-d's goodness' refers to His Attribute of Mercy, and how Israel could invoke it through the Prayer of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (34:6-7) - which would be available and effective even were the merits of the Patriarchs to become depleted.
9. The S'forno makes the connection between the prohibition of the idolatry and the agricultural laws of the festivals in the following way. The putting together of those two sections is to teach that the road to material success is not through frantic search for omens and intermediaries, but through service to G-d.
10. Rashi, based on 34:31-32, contain the stages and sequence of Moses' teaching the Israelites. First, he taught Aaron what G-d commanded him. Then Aaron would be seated on his left, and Aaron's sons would enter. After Moses taught it to them, they would be seated flanking Moses and Aaron, and Moses would teach the elders. Then they would be seated at the sides and the people would come and hear the teachings. That the further up the hierarchy, the more times they would be taught would suggest that there should be a hierarchial system of judges, as Jethro had suggested.
Aaron's role in the Chet Ha-Egel is discussed at length in the Commentaries. Firstly, why didn't he use all within his power to prevent the building of the Golden Calf in the first place? Secondly, why wasn't G-d's anger explicitly directed at Aaron in this Parasha? This seems all the more surprising when this account is compared with Moses' recalling the story before his death. In that text it indeed says G-d was very angry with Aaron (intending) to destroy him and I… prayed for Aaron at that time (Devarim 9:20).
*Please note - My own attempts to deal with the issues related to the above may be found in the archives for 5760 in Shema Yisrael - on Parashat Ki Tisa
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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