Friday, March 09, 2007

Parashat Ki Tissa: Moses' Prayer

From a theological perspective, the notion of Man arguing with the Almighty is the epitome of absurdity. But in Chumash it is the most elementary and natural gesture: Man can pray to God, argue with, debate, and even accuse God! Every Jewish schoolchild takes this point for granted. And from whom do they learn this radical principle? From Moshe Rabbeinu[1].

At the Golden Calf, (and subsequently after the debacle of the Spies,) God pronounced a devastating decree of imminent death against the entire nation of Israel. Moshe reacted immediately by approaching God, as he took up the defence of Israel. Praying? - No! Confronting, persuading, insisting, that Israel be saved. Relentless, he succeeds and averts the awful decree. Moshe, the towering figure of Chumash, is bestowed with many honoured titles expressing his leadership, however one particular appellation stands out in its boldness. Moshe is described as the "Defender of Israel[2]."

What are the tools of Moses' art of confronting the Almighty? Indeed, how does he seem to succeed in changing the pronouncement of the "Judge of the Universe?"


1. First Shemot 32:8-14. (In truth the dialogue with God continues throughout ch.33-34)
· If God initially intends to destroy Am Yisrael, then why does he retract that intention?
· List the arguments Moshe uses at the Egel. What is the basis of each point? How does Moshe succeed in changing God's mind?


Here at the Egel, the Golden Calf we witness a most fascinating exchange between Moshe and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. God tells Moshe:

"Hurry down, for your people, who you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely … they have made themselves a molten calf and bowed down to it and sacrificed to it … I see this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let me be , that My anger blaze against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation." (32:8-10)

We should not minimise the enormity of the threat here. God has decided here to kill the entire nation, leaving only Moshe alive to serve as the beginning of a new Jewish people! Moshe is not willing to accept this scenario, and he immediately rises to the defence of the nation:

(11)…Why, O Lord, let Your anger blaze forth against Your people , whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. (12) Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.' Turn from your blazing anger and renounce your intent to punish Your people! (13) Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how you swore to them … ' I will make your offspring numerous as the stars of the heaven, and I will give your offspring the whole land of which I spoke to possess forever.' (14) And the Lord renounced His punishment that he planned to bring upon His people." (32:10-14)


In three verses Moshe manages to reverse the fortune of the Jewish nation. Three critical verses transform God's decree:

"Now, let me be , that My anger blaze against them and that I may destroy them"


"And the Lord renounced His punishment that he planned to bring upon His people"

How did Moshe do it? Let us analyse this passage.

In this masterful speech, each line skilfully aimed to target a new line of defence. If we analyse Moshe's speech here, we can identify THREE distinct lines of argument. Two of the arguments are self-evident the third is more subtle.

Passuk 12 presents the first argument. It relates to God's world reputation to the world, His public "image." Moshe relates to the stated goals of the Exodus. Yetziat Mitzrayim was aimed at proving God's supremacy to the Egyptians: “By this you shall know that I AM THE LORD’.” (7:17) If God kills the people in the Midbar, he will be demonstrating that he is a capricious cruel deity and not a dependable benevolent God. If God will enact the Exodus and then kill the people it will not merely be a tragedy for Bnei Yisrael, it will be an affront to the concept of a God committed to liberty, covenant and kindness[3]. God will be seen as "evil."

Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.'

And hence, Moshe argues, even if the Israelites deserve the worst punishment, the effect on God's world reputation will be devastating. God's hands are tied. God cares about what Man thinks about Him, and since the death of the Israelites will be viewed as the absolute failure of God, God will have to resign his plan.

That is the first line of defence.


Verse 13 presents Moshe's second argument. This one addresses God's prior commitments, God's promises - what we know as "Covenant." Throughout Sefer Bereishit[4] God repeatedly promises the Patriarch's two specific things. These two things are consistent. They are the LAND of Canaan, and an OFFSPRING (in Hebrew, ZERA) who will inherit and live in that Land. God establishes these promises in the form of a covenant.

What is a covenant? In modern terminology we would talk about a treaty, a pact or a contract between two parties. When God makes a covenant with Avraham or with Am Yisrael, he is signing a treaty with us. He is binding Himself with a set of commitments to man. And this is certainly remarkable, radical! The all-powerful, all-knowing God decides to commit himself contractually to man. But God does this.

Now, Moshe utilises this covenant. He says to God, You promised to the patriarchs that their offspring will be numerous and inherit the land. If you kill everyone, then how will you fulfil your promise? Are you intending to wait another 500 years? In other words, Moshe says to God, You have prior commitments. You are bound by contract to the ongoing survival of the Jewish People! You simply cannot destroy the Children of Israel.

Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how you swore to them … ' I will make your offspring numerous as the stars of the heaven, and I will give your offspring the whole land


We have explained verse 12 and 13. Verse 14 gives us the resolution. How do we explain verse 11? What does verse 11 add to the debate? With a close reading of the text, we can identify a third argument, and a very subtle but powerful debate between Moshe and God that drives to the very heart of the God-Israel relationship.

Let us begin with a mashal – a regular life situation – which might exemplify the debate here. Imagine a house where a parent is finding the children unusually difficult. A parent might turn to their spouse and say, "The kids are driving me crazy." However, when the kids irritate a parent to the point of despair, a parent might turn to their spouse and yell: "YOUR kids are driving me crazy!" Why do we do this? At times we disassociate ourselves from the source of our distress by a process of dis-ownership, a form of rejection. In our story here, God does this too! Let us look at the text. He says to Moshe:

(7) Hurry down, for YOUR people, who YOU brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely…

What is God saying here? God says to Moshe, they're yours! They are YOUR people, who YOU brought out from Egypt. God is disassociating Himself from the Jewish nation! He acts as if it's Moshe's problem!

It is here that we begin to see the power of verse 11. How does Moshe reply in his prayer?

(11) Why, O Lord, let your anger blaze forth against YOUR people , whom YOU delivered from the land of Egypt

In other words, Moses is saying to God: It is YOUR people, not mine. YOU brought them from Egypt, not me! You cannot dis-own the people. They are not my people, says Moshe! You cannot escape the fact that the nation is God's nation!

So to summarise, we have 3 arguments:

1. God- they are YOUR nation; your responsibility!
2. What will Egypt say?
3. The promise to the Patriarchs.

The combination of these three formidable arguments achieves the desired effect. Moshe's pleas are met with a happy end. God is "persuaded!" The imminent danger of destruction is averted.

[1] Maybe the first character to really challenge God's judgement is Avraham in his prayers for Sedom – Bereshit ch.18.
[2] Shemot Rabba 43:1; Yalkut Shimoni Ekev #852.
[3] This is the concept that we nowadays call Kiddush and Chillul Hashem. The notion of God caring what the nations think is widespread in Tanach: See Devarim 32:26-27; Yehoshua 7:9, Melachim I 20:28, Yirmiyahu 20:44, Yechezkel 20:44, 36:16-36, Tehillim 79:10, 115:2. I hope to devote a future shiur to this topic – It is currently half written. For now, you can look at Nechama Leibowitz "Studies in Bamidbar" pgs. 157-163.
[4] see Bereshit 12:7, 13:15-16, 15:4-5, 7, 14-21; 17:7-8, 26:4; 28:13-14; 35:12


Anonymous said...

Dear Alex,

I have been reading and using your Melachim blog as a resource for teaching Melachim Bet (along with other members of the faculty of the Yeshiva HS I teach at), but I can't seem to find anything posted after October 2006. Did you ever finish? Is the blog somewhere else?

I would really appreciate it if you could send me an email- RAH@WYHS.NET

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