Mending a Damaged Relationship

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Mending a Damaged Relationship

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte and Ronnie Ziegler


Our parasha opens, "Moshe assembled the entire congregation of Israel and said to them..." According to the Rashbam, this assembly served a purely pragmatic purpose: "To take from each person [a contribution for the Mishkan] and also to instruct them regarding the construction of the Mishkan." Ibn Ezra explains similarly. The Ramban, however, speaks of a very different purpose:

"It stands to reason that this occurred the day after [Moshe's] descent [from the mountain], whereupon he told them all about the Mishkan, regarding which he had been commanded already earlier, prior to the breaking of the tablets. Once the Almighty acquiesced to him, gave him the second tablets and entered into a new covenant with him that God will travel in their midst, they have returned to their original state and their youthful love; it has been assured that His Shekhina will be in their midst as He commanded them originally when He said, 'They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will reside within them.' Moshe therefore commands them all that he had originally been commanded."

Beyond the actual command regarding the Mishkan, says the Ramban, Moshe transmits the message that the Almighty has forgiven Benei Yisrael and will therefore dwell among them as He had originally planned. But besides the restoration of the relationship between the Almighty and Am Yisrael, it seems to me that we can speak here of another purpose to this convocation.

In the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, a large gap had developed between the nation and God. Along with this, another gap opened up - one which we usually overlook: a gap between Am Yisrael and Moshe himself. This, I believe, was a two-sided affair caused by mutual disappointment - a disappointment exacerbated by the expectations which had preceded it.

Firstly, Moshe was sorely disappointed in his nation. They had betrayed not only God, but also him. He could understand that an enslaved nation would be unlikely to follow him, and he had forseen this eventuality: "But they will not listen to me, and they will not heed my voice, because they will say, 'God has not appeared to you!'" (Shemot 4:1). This was understandable: "They did not listen to Moshe, for their spirits were crushed by the cruel bondage" (Shemot 6:9).

But after they had left Egypt, their relationship with Moshe deepened. Moshe, the leader, saw before him a responsibility - an entire nation to whom he dedicated every second of his life. He loved this nation so much that he was not able to initiate even the simplest of plans if it would separate him from them: "The next day, Moshe sat down to judge the people - and the nation lined up [waiting for] Moshe from morning until evening" (Shemot 18:13). He did not care, on a personal level, that such intense leadership would result in the fact that he would "surely wilt;" what worried him was that "also the nation with you [will wilt]" (Shemot 18:18).

For their part, the nation approached Moshe with admiration, reverence and a sense of complete dependence.

In light of this mutually developing bond, God had promised Moshe, prior to the Golden Calf, "And they will also believe in you forever" (Shemot 19:9). Yet in a twinkling, this relationship, this promise, this destiny seemed to disintegrate. Am Yisrael destroyed a connection that had been forged in blood, anguish, concern, constant guidance and plain hard work.

What had Moshe expected from them at this stage? He had expected that now that they were out of Egypt, now that they had stood at Sinai, now that they had undergone both a physical and a spiritual conversion, they would indeed uphold the Talmudic dictum - "A convert is like a newborn child." Moshe believed that he had before him a tabula rasa - a clean slate, fresh and new. Yet what did he find? He found the wildest, basest, most primitive type of Egyptian paganism - a reversion so complete it defied his comprehension; but more painfully, it defied his love for them.

This was Moshe's disappointment.

However, and this is not something we appreciate, Am Yisrael, too, was disappointed. We read this parasha while bearing in mind all the background information about what really happened on Har Sinai. We know of Moshe's bold intervention with God on behalf of the people, of his courage and self-sacrifice in pleading their case. The problem is that all this took place in the presence of God alone; at the time, Benei Yisrael knew nothing about this dialogue. This information was revealed to them, or rather to their children, only during Moshe's final oration in Sefer Devarim. However, if we wish to understand how Bnei Yisrael reacted, how they felt, we cannot do this while retaining so much information that they never had. We must attempt, to the extent possible, to see the events of the Golden Calf through their eyes. How did these events unfold from Bnei Yisrael's perspective?

Am Yisrael had undergone events beyond the power of human imagination; their world had been turned upside down - plagues, sea-partings, encounters with God - all in a ridiculously short time-span. They had been enslaved physically and mentally for centuries, and their dependence on a defined, authoritarian, discipline-structure cannot be underestimated. Make no mistake, they had to be LED out of Egypt. They trekked into a bleak and barren desert, with little water and food - a situation which would be trying for even a more emancipated people.

All the time, however, they are comforted by one solid presence - Moshe Rabbeinu. He weathers all crises with powers and knowledge beyond their ken. Then they arrive at Mount Sinai and undergo an experience which would shake the foundations of any human being - they hear God speak, they apprehend infinity. While reeling from this series of unbelievable phenomena, Moshe disappears. They have no leader. Who can they blame? What can they do?

"For this man, Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!" (Shemot 32:1). How do they feel? "He has abandoned us! What are we to do? Where can we go? He has left us to fend for ourselves! How could he do this to us?" Not just that - but when he finally returns, unannounced, what does he do, what do they see? They see a man acting insanely - he smashes the tablets; he destroys their symbolic leader, the calf, who was there only because he had abandoned them; he makes them drink the ashes of their "failure," and then on top of that he begins some sort of vindictive massacre, as a result of which three thousand people are killed (Shemot 32:26-28). As opposed to Aharon, who had always been "a lover of human beings, bringing them closer to the Torah" (Avot 1:12), who was Moshe now in their eyes? A hot-tempered, wrathful murderer.

We, with our knowledge of what happened behind the scenes, understand what really happened here; we know how close the entire nation came to being destroyed. But Moshe never told them his side. He never recounted the daring measures he took on their behalf, going so far as to issue an ultimatum: "Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record that You have written!" (32:32). He restrained himself for forty years and only in that last year, just before his death, does he reveal what happened - and not even to them, but to their children. They did not know that God had told him, "Leave me alone and I shall destroy them and I shall erase their name from under the heavens, and I shall make you a great nation, bigger and mightier than them" (Devarim 10:5). Faced with this threat/promise, Moshe embarked on one of the most daring and incredible events recorded in the Torah - a mortal man struggling to "convince" Infinity, as it were, to bargain, to argue, to demand Am Yisrael be spared."And Moshe entreated..." (Shemot 32:11) - of his prayer they knew nothing; of his two-pronged attack - "Think of the desecration of Your name! Think of Your promise to the forefathers!" - they were ignorant.

"'God said to Moshe: ...And now leave Me be and I will be wrathful with the people and destroy them, and I will make you into a great nation [in their stead]' (Shemot 32:10) - Rabbi Abbahu said: If the verse hadn't been written, one would have been unable to say such a thing; Moshe grabbed the Almighty like one who grabs another person by his clothing, and he said before Him, 'Master of the World, I am not going to let go of You until You forgive and pardon them!'...

Rabbi Elazar said: Moshe stood in prayer before the Almighty until he became ill. [The Bach's version: Abbaye said, Until he made God ill.]" (Berakhot 32a)

Firstly, as depicted in this gemara, Moshe attempted to quell God's anger, to prevent their imminent destruction. Yet Moshe was not content with securing mere forgiveness for Bnei Yisrael. He wanted a second chance for them - he wanted a return to their previous status, as if what they had done had never happened!

"Rava said: [Moshe prayed] until God annulled His vow [to destroy the nation and not to dwell among them]...

Shemuel said: This teaches us that Moshe was prepared to accept death for them, as it is written, 'If not, erase me from the record that You have written' (Shemot 32:32)." (Ibid.)

The Ramban (Shemot 32:32) goes so far as to interpret:

"In my opinion, when Moshe said, 'Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record that You have written,' [he meant to say, 'Erase me] instead of erasing them, from the book of the living, and I shall suffer their punishment.'"

Unlike Shemuel's interpretation in the gemara above, according to which Moshe was prepared to die with the people, the Ramban writes that he was prepared to die IN THEIR PLACE and to suffer punishment on their behalf!

Am Yisrael knew none of this. All they saw was the punishment, the anger and the dread news which Moshe bore after returning again from the mountaintop, "I [God] will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people... Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do with you" (33:3-5). Moreover, they saw that Moshe, already distant from them, became even more removed, pitching his tent outside the camp - and not just outside, but "far from the camp" (Shemot 33:7). The same Moshe before whom the people had stood from morning until evening is now isolated and detached from them.

This, then, was Am Yisrael's view of Moshe's actions; uninformed of all that he had done for them, they were disappointed in him as well.

How did they react?

"Whenever Moshe went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand... and gaze after Moshe until he had entered the Tent" (33:8). Rashi asks: Why did they watch Moshe? "It is to tell [their] praise - [they thought to themselves,] 'Happy is the mortal who is assured that God's presence will come after him into the tent.'" But there are other opinions, which tap the depth of Am Yisrael's disappointment. The Gemara (Kiddushin 33b) cites a dispute about whether the people's gazing in this case was favorable or critical. The Yerushalmi (Shekalim 5:2) explains the view that they looked upon him critically:

"Those who looked upon Moshe claimed: Look at his thick thighs, look at his knees, look at his neck; it is all from us - Moshe eats and drinks from the Jews, and everything he has comes from the Jews!"

According to this opinion, the people looked upon Moshe with resentment. Some interpretations go even further:

"Rabbi Shemuel Bar Nachmani said: They suspected Moshe of committing adultery, as it says (Shemot 33:7), 'Moshe took the tent and pitched it outside the camp.'" (Sanhedrin 110a)

So disappointed were they in Moshe, so much had they lost faith in the wisdom of his counsel and actions, so much had they seemingly suffered because of HIS leadership, that they could not but help suspect his motives, no matter what he did.

We can now appreciate the atmosphere which prevailed in the camp after these events - the cold peace between Moshe and his nation. The nation felt betrayed and resentful; Moshe not only mirrored their feelings, but had to restrain himself from explaining to them how mistaken they were about him. He forced himself to live with his own hurts while he knew that his greatest act - saving the entire nation at the risk of his own life - would continue to be construed by them as a barbaric purge. Think of what must have been going through his mind - his hopes, his life's work all dashed in one day of stupidity; and he has to bottle it all up inside, always nurturing, always prodding, always hoping.

We now understand the need for a special assembly of the entire nation at this point. On the threshold of Am Yisrael's undertaking of its historic mission, Moshe sensed that because of the rift which had opened up between him and his nation, because of the veil which he now wore at all times, there was a desperate need to connect once again, to bridge the gaps. Therefore he gathered everyone together, not just to give them the command to construct the tabernacle, by which God would once again dwell among them, but to ensure that he and they, disappointed leader and disappointed nation, would begin to dwell together once again.

[Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat Parashat Vayakhel 5757 (1997).]


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