Latest update: March 12th, 2015
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.
We can answer these questions by analyzing Moshe’s prayer. He mentioned the promises made to the patriarchs. Now, who was greater, the patriarchs or Moshe? From the earlier parshios in Sefer Shemos, it would appear that the patriarchs were greater. Moshe mentions them in his prayers, Hashem chides Moshe that the patriarchs never questioned Hashem, even though they never saw the fulfillment of the promise to make them into a great nation and give them Eretz Yisrael. Chazal say that only three of our ancestors are referred to as patriarchs. For example, we only mention Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov in Shemoneh Esrei, excluding Moshe, On the other hand, we say that Moshe was the greatest prophet, including all prophets who preceded and succeeded him, including the patriarchs.
Let us compare Avraham and Moshe more closely. Avraham sought Hashem on his own, without receiving any help from Hashem in his quest. The Rambam (Hilchos Avoda Zara, Chapter 1) says that the world was cascading down hill until the pillar of the world, Avraham, was born. At a young age, either 3 or 40, he began to question what controls the world. Even though he had no teacher to guide him and he lived in a family and community of idolaters, his fantastic intellect led him to conclude that there is a God that controls everything.
The earliest recorded conversation between Hashem and Avraham was when Avraham was 75 years old. In the intervening years he debated the idolaters and defended his belief in the one true God. During these years he was mocked by many. He must have been asked many times “Avraham, you believe that there is a single God? Have you ever spoken with Him? Has he communicated in any way with you?” Yet he dedicated his life to spreading his monotheistic belief system, one person at a time. He received no assistance in this task from Hashem. The Torah does not relate any supernatural miracles (in comparison with the miracles that occurred to Moshe and bnei Yisrael) that were performed on behalf of the patriarchs. Even the miracle of Sarah bearing a child at the age of 90 was not as blatantly remarkable a miracle as the splitting of the Red Sea. Yitzchak and Yaakov were not the beneficiaries of obvious, supernatural miracles either, even though events recorded about them suggest the guiding, hidden hand of Hashem. The patriarchs attained their special status because they popularized the name of Hashem without His help, and they dedicated their lives to this task, despite all the hardships they endured.
The term Elokei Avraham (G-d of Avraham) is in the possessive form. By Avraham searching for and finding Hashem, who was rejected and discarded by the world around him, so to speak, Hashem became the possession of Avraham, so to speak – similar to one who claims an ownerless object. The possessive form is used for each of the patriarchs. In their own way, each patriarch searched for and found Hashem, taking ownership of Hashem in his own unique way.
Moshe came to learn of Hashem in a completely different way. Hashem sought Moshe at the burning bush, not the other way around. Moshe debated with Hashem for a week in an attempt to convince Hashem to send someone else to redeem the people. When Moshe finally agreed to go, he was given a scripted set of messages and signs to deliver to the people and plagues to visit on Paroh and the Egyptians, to convince the people and Paroh that their redemption had arrived. At the time of the Exodus, Moshe did not win the right to be the leader of the people. Rather, Hashem gave it to Moshe because the situation demanded it. Moshe did not have to go through an akeidah like Avraham did in order to attain his leadership.
Moshe is referred to as eved Hashem, the servant of Hashem. Hashem is the owner having made a kinyan (act of acquisition) in Moshe. Moshe’s experience was very different from that of Avraham, who made a kinyan in Hashem, making Hashem his property.
However all this changed when the people sinned with the golden calf. Hashem tells Moshe the eirev rav, the non-Jewish multitudes that Moshe brought along from Egypt, caused this disaster. Moshe, Hashem says, you never sacrificed for the people, everything that you did as their leader was handed to you on a silver platter. Avraham built the nation, but you inherited it without any effort. You told Paroh to let the people go, and when he refused to recognize Hashem and acquiesce, Hashem supported you and sent the plagues upon Egypt. At the Red Sea, you simply raised your hand and the sea split. You have expended minimal effort on behalf of the people. On the other hand, Avraham demonstrated leadership when he tried to reason with Nimrod and was hurled into the furnace and when he placed his own life in jeopardy and interceded on behalf of the people of Sedom.
At the episode of the golden calf, Moshe forfeited his original leadership mission of taking the people out of Egypt, entrusted to him at the burning bush. If Moshe was unwilling to sacrifice himself on behalf of bnei Yisrael and accepted their destruction, he had to relinquish his leadership role. Ein melech bli am – there is no king without a nation. This message was delivered in a harsh tone, Vayedaber Hashem.
To this point, the patriarchs were greater than Moshe because of their dedication to building the Jewish nation and their willingness to persevere in that mission despite all sorts of hardships. Hashem hinted to Moshe that he could still save the people. Vayomer Hashem El Moshe, Hashem said to Moshe: you have lost a nation that you did not sacrifice for. At Har Sinai Hashem gave the Torah to the people. Moshe, you have not taught the people anything yet. However, now Moshe I have a new proposition for you. I offer you the opportunity to follow the footsteps of the patriarchs and work and sacrifice on their behalf. You have the opportunity to rebuild this people into the am Hashem. However, this time you will have to accomplish it without miracles, thunder or lightning. From now on you will have to travel the path of Avraham, a road riddled with obstacles and hazards, that will require great sacrifice on your part. You will have to educate them and persevere through their complaints and tribulations. The choice is yours. You can educate your own children (Gershom and Eliezer) to eventually become the am Hashem, and sanction the destruction of this group. Or, if you are willing to follow the path of Avraham and shoulder the responsibility for this group of idol worshipers and educate them to be shomrei Torah, then you can be their true leader. If you are willing to teach Torah to each and every Jew and show future generations the correct path, like the patriarchs were willing to do, then you have a chance to save them. But to do that you will have to become Moshe Rabbeinu, you will have to be their teacher.
When Moshe realized that the fate of the people was in his hands, he immediately replied zechor l’Avraham Yitzchak ul’Yisrael (shemos 32:13), I am ready to emulate the patriarchs and sacrifice on behalf of the nation. At the first kabbalas haTorah, Moshe had only to stretch out his hands and receive the luchos. At the second, Moshe had to hew the luchos himself and carry them up the mountain and carve their message into the hearts of the people. The first was between Hashem and all Jews, and was intended to make the complete Torah accessible to all Jews. The second was between Hashem and Moshe and required Moshe to become the teacher of the people. Chazal say that the first mattan Torah was to include all of Torah as Torah shebichtav. The second mattan Torah introduced Torah shebe’al peh, which required a Moshe Rabbeinu to teach to every Jew. Moshe had to accept this new and difficult role in order to save and rebuild the nation.
The leaders of each generation are the Moshe of their time, responsible to teach the people and continue the process of mattan Torah until the arrival of Mashiach. This is what Rabbi Elazar said: Moshe descend from your exalted leadership role. After all, you never sought leadership, you never sacrificed for it, it was granted to you only for the sake of bnei Yisrael. Until the golden calf, Moshe was amazingly successful. When Moshe heard about the golden calf, his strength was sapped. However, he heard the other part of the message, that he had the chance to regain his leadership by standing up and sacrificing himself on behalf of the people, emulating the patriarchs. Moshe proved that he was ready for his new role by praying on their behalf 40 days and 40 nights. By grabbing on to the garment of Hashem, so to speak, and refusing to release it until the people were forgiven (as Rabbi Abahu says, Brachos 32a). This was his initial test. Moshe, if you are willing to give up easily, then you are no leader. You must be like Avraham, who was willing to take up the cause of Sedom. Hashem told Moshe: lech reid, relinquish your original leadership role for which you did not have to struggle and accept one fraught with difficulties.
Moshe knew that in his new role he would never be included as a fourth patriarch, or called the father of the nation. He said if a chair of three legs – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – cannot stand, then how could a chair with one leg, Moshe alone, stand. He said that he is interested only in saving this Jewish nation.
We now understand the relevance of the story of the friend of the king. It is easy to be the friend of the king if one is in constant agreement with the king. However, sometimes true friendship demands a willingness to oppose the king when necessary, even when it entails personal sacrifice. The king punished his son in order to test his friend to see if he had the strength of character to oppose him. Moshe answered, I am ready and willing to give up my own personal comfort and place in history, I am willing to sacrifice myself and my potential future greatness in order to save the Jewish nation.
After this act of sacrifice, Moshe attained a status that was greater than the patriarchs. Only after Moshe displayed his self-sacrifice did his face light up (koran or panav, Shemos 34:29), after the third time that Moshe descended from Mount Sinai after the second mattan Torah. Moshe became the greatest of the prophets, adon ha’neviim, when he emulated the patriarchs. Chazal say that Hashem did not retract the positive offer of making Moshe into a great nation. The offer was fulfilled as all of knesses Yisrael became the children of Moshe. He became Moshe Rabbeinu. Marriage, divorce, contracts are all formulated according to das Moshe v’Yisrael. Moshe became identified with the entire Torah, because he sacrificed himself on behalf of the people. This was the way of Avraham.
After Moshe showed his willingness to pray and sacrifice on their behalf, he became the fourth leg of the chair, the fourth father of the nation. Even though we have a principle that there are only three patriarchs, Moshe was now in their class. After all, a father will sacrifice himself on behalf of his children.
The Jewish leader cannot inherit his position of leadership. He must build it. There were two Moshes. The first ended with the episode of the golden calf. He was replaced by the new Moshe, a compatriot of Avraham.
About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Rapps attended the Rav's shiur at RIETS from 1977 through 1981 and is a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He and his wife Tzipporah live in Edison, N.J. Rabbi Rapps can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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