Parashas Ki Sissa

This week’s parashah includes the tragic episode of the golden calf. Hashem told Moshe about the sin while Moshe was still on Mt. Sinai. Hashem said that He was going to wipe the Jewish People out. Moshe exclaimed (Shemos 32:11): “Why, Hashem, should Your anger be kindled against Your people, whom You took out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand?” The Midrash elaborates (Shemos Rabbah 43:6):
Moshe arose to appease God. He said: “Master of the Universe! They made You a helper, and You are angry at them? This calf that they made will be Your helper. You will direct the sun, and he will direct the moon. You will direct the planets, and he will direct the constellations. You will bring down the dew, and he will make the winds blow. You will bring down the rain, and he will make the plants grow.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Moshe, you are making the same mistake that they did. Behold, this calf has no real substance.” Moshe replied: “If so, why are You angry at Your children?”
But later, when Moshe went back up to Mt. Sinai, he declared before Hashem (Shemos 32:30): “Please, this nation has committed a grievous sin.” In Shemos Rabbah 47:9, the Midrash relates that when the angels of attack saw Moshe recounting the people’s sin, they left the scene. They said to themselves: “Let us not involve ourselves with indicting. So long as this one indicts them, let them meet their downfall at his hands.”
Thus, Moshe initially tried to downplay the sin, but afterwards magnified it. Why did he reverse his line of argument? The Maggid, in his typical way, answers through a parable.
A rich man had an only son, whom he provided with fine clothes. The man sent his son to another town to learn. While there, the boy fell into a mud puddle and ruined his clothes. One of the townsmen, who hated the boy, sent a letter to the father about the incident. He wrote: “Your son went out to play, and he started to run wild. He got so out of hand that he fell into a mud puddle and ruined his clothes. They are totally unfit to wear now, and you will have to replace them.” Someone else came to the father and said: “What you were told is a lie. The boy’s clothes are not totally ruined. They just got stained in one place. They are still wearable.”
Each of these two men aided the boy on one count and harmed him on another. The first man aided the boy by letting the father know he had to get the boy new clothes. At the same time, he harmed the boy by causing his father to get angry at him for recklessly ruining his clothes. The second man, in saying that the clothes were only slightly damaged, aided the boy by minimizing his offense. The father would thus get less angry at the boy. But he also caused the boy harm by leading the father to think that it was unnecessary to get his son new clothes.
A third man then came and reported to the father as follows: “The real truth is that the clothes are indeed totally ruined, but it was not your son’s fault. He was not out playing wildly. Rather, some hooligan pushed him into the mud.” This third man aided the boy on both counts. The father was no longer angry at him, and he got him new clothes.
The sequence of Moshe’s arguments was along similar lines. Initially, Moshe attempted to directly contradict the Adversarial Angel’s accusations. The Adversarial Angel portrayed the people’s offense as reprehensible. Moshe argued that what they did was not so bad, so they did not deserve to face Hashem’s wrath. Moreover, the argument went, they caused no harm, so there was no need for rehabilitation.
This argument did not succeed before the All-Present One. Indeed, how could it be said that the people did not sin through such a great misdeed as making the calf? So long as Moshe tried to contradict the Adversarial Angel by minimizing the sin, the angel continued relentlessly with his accusations. In the end, Moshe himself came to magnify the gravity of the sin, saying: “Please, this nation has committed a grievous sin.”
It is in this sense that the Midrash says, in Shemos Rabbah 43:1, that Moshe pushed the Adversarial Angel aside and stood in his place. Moshe himself adopted the angel’s line of argument, and magnified the gravity of the people’s sin. But then, as the Midrash relates further on, at the beginning of Shemos Rabbah 43:9, Moshe went on to argue that the people were not to blame, for they had just come out of Egypt—a land riddled with idols. Moshe noted further that the mixed multitude that went along with the Jews incited them to commit the sin. Moshe concluded by saying: “You must therefore show them mercy and rehabilitate them. Their souls have suffered a grave blow due to this great sin, and they are in need of a cure. They need You to implant within them a new spirit—a purified heart. If You leave them as they are now, all the effort that You invested in them will be for naught.” And God did as Moshe suggested – He gave the Jewish People the Tabernacle and the sacrificial service to purify them and make them holy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

1 Comment

  1. North Jerusalem Maggid of Dubno Project » Blog Archive » Parashas Ki Sissa:

    […] Egypt – a land riddled with idols. We have presented this explanation in detail previously ( A second explanation builds on an earlier verse, which states as follows (Shemos 32:11): […]

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