The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
The Gemara (Berachos 32a) examines Moshe’s prayer to Hashem to forgive the people for the sin of the golden calf. The Torah says “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe, lech reid” (Exodus 32:7), which Rabbi Elazar interprets as descend from your exalted status. Since Hashem elevated Moshe’s status in order to lead bnei Yisrael, now that the people have sinned and are no longer the chosen people, there is no longer a need for Moshe as leader.
Hashem offers Moshe the option to stand by and allow Hashem to destroy bnei Yisrael and generate a new nation from Moshe in their place. The Gemara uses the parable of a king who physically punished his son and said that if not for his close friend standing here he would surely have killed him. The friend of the king realized that he had the opportunity to save the prince, and immediately seized it and rescued him.
What forced Rabbi Elazar to interpret the word “reid” as anything other than a command that Moshe descend the mountain? Why interpret it allegorically to mean descend from your exalted level? Perhaps Rabbi Elazar interpreted it that way since there was no need for Hashem to explicitly tell Moshe to descend the mountain. After all, Moshe had just completed his stay of 40 days and nights and received the Torah. It was now time for Moshe to descend the mountain anyway. Also, it says “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe” – Hashem ordered him to go. Moshe knew on his own that the time had come to return to the people. Apparently this led Rabbi Elazar to interpret that Hashem was referring to Moshe’s status.
The Gemara says that Moshe lost his ability to pray and protest when he was ordered to descend. The Gemara uses the parable of the friend of the king to indicate that Moshe realized that Hashem provided him, despite his diminished status, with an opening and an opportunity to pray on their behalf to prevent their annihilation. This parable requires explanation. There are people who recognize their uncontrollable temper and call out to others “Hold me back!” in order to prevent themselves from committing an inappropriate act. But how does this pertain to Hashem? If bnei Yisrael were guilty of idolatry, then they deserved to be punished accordingly. What could Moshe possibly do to change that? If they were not punishable, then why did Hashem tell Moshe to descend from his status as leader? After all, in the end we find that Moshe did not descend from his status, rather he became the greatest of all leaders and prophets of bnei Yisrael. Why was he told to descend?
Another difficulty is that the Torah adds some words to the narrative that on the surface appear extraneous. “Vayedaber Hashem El Moshe,” and Hashem told Moshe to descend because his people have sinned. The Torah continues “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe,” and Hashem told Moshe “…V’atah hanichah li…” relinquish Me, do not protest and I will destroy the people and instead turn you and your descendants into a great nation in their place. Why was it necessary to introduce this offer with Vayomer? After all, it apparently extended the previous statement of Hashem ordering Moshe to descend.