Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 27 February 2016 / 18 Adar I 5776

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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G-d’s Reaction to the Sin of the Golden Calf

G-d spoke to Moshe: “Go, descend, for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt have become corrupt. They have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it and sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt’.” G-d said to Moshe: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. And now, desist from Me. Let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them, and I shall make you a great nation.” (Shemot 32:7-10)

Abarbanel finds numerous difficulties with G-d’s response. Why does He tell Moshe to go down from Mount Sinai? Shouldn’t he remain there and be spared from seeing the destruction of this people? The Hebrew word for “corrupt” in our verse is actually more correctly translated as “causing others to become corrupt”. If so, who is corrupting whom? Why does G-d say “your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt?” This is entirely superfluous. The simple expression “the people” would have sufficed. Why does G-d describe their actions in such great detail? Why does the Torah say, “G-d spoke to Moshe” twice? What is the meaning of the expression “stiff-necked people”? He should have described them as did the prophet Isaiah (1:4): “They are a sinful nation, a people weighed down by iniquity — evil offspring, destructive children!” Why does G-d tell Moshe to leave Him alone? What harm could Moshe possibly do? Finally, why does G-d tell Moshe that He will make him a great nation? It is illogical to think that He was bribing Moshe into accepting His decision to destroy the people.

Moshe’s descent from Mount Sinai is really a descent from his lofty spiritual level. He attained that level only in order to lift up the nation by giving them the Torah. Now that they have transgressed so blatantly, there is no longer a need for Moshe to remain on that level. G-d then tells Moshe that it was the “mixed-multitude” of Egyptians who accompanied the Children of Israel out of Egypt who enticed them into worshipping the golden calf. The entire nation would have to suffer, since it did not stand up to reprove the instigators. These Egyptians are called “Moshe’s people” because their connection was to Moshe, not to G-d. The Children of Israel understood that they were brought out of Egypt by G-d; the mixed multitude never had a strong belief in G-d. Rather, they were simply followers of Moshe who had converted them. The transgression is described in detail because the nation transgressed in three ways: against Moshe, against G-d and against themselves. Through their actions they humiliated Moshe, their leader. They rebelled against G-d by straying from the path which they were commanded to follow. They can be compared to a bride who is promiscuous with another man in the midst of her wedding ceremony. They transgressed against themselves by undermining their own honor by worshipping a creation of their own hands, and serving it ways that should have been reserved for their Creator.

The verses are broken up into what appears to be two separate speeches because G-d “paused” in order to see if Moshe would respond to His reproofs. However, Moshe was silent, overwhelmed by shame and unable to respond. G-d then refers to the nation as a “stiff-necked people”. This expression is actually metaphorically comparing them to animals, which follow their immediate needs and are incapable of seeing future consequences. G-d created man and animals with eyes facing forward so that they could avoid the dangers in front of them. But in order to protect them from the dangers behind them He created them with flexible necks that could turn from side-to-side. But the nation, in this case, demonstrated that it was stiff-necked and incapable of taking into account future consequences, as they could not “look behind them” to see what would happen afterwards — i.e., what they would leave behind. G-d is essentially telling Moshe that there is no purpose in reproving or punishing them.

As a result, G-d then tells Moshe to “leave Me alone” to carry out what I have decided is the proper judgment. He then tells Moshe that his own honor and spiritual loftiness will not be diminished, as the nation will be rebuilt through him. This is indicated by the verse in Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 4:7), “For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is the L-rd, our G-d, whenever we call to Him?” This relationship is not due to the merits of the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, but rather due to the merit of Moshe.

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