Moshe's Missing Middot

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Moshe's Missing Middot

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Since the middle of the last parasha, Beha'alotekha, Moshe Rabbeinu has faced down the mutterings and potential rebellions of the mitonenim (Bamidbar 11:1-3), those who lust after meat (ibid., vv. 4-15, 30-35) alternate prophets within the camp (vv. 26-29), and even dissension from his siblings (Chapter 12).  To encourage him in his deepest moment of despair, God appoints 70 elders to assist him (11:16-26).  However, in our parasha, Shelach, when the spies bring their slanderous report before the people (13:25-33), the elders are silent.  Only two of the spies, Kalev and Yehoshua, jump to Moshe's defense (14:7) – "for the Land is very, very good!"  God's timely intervention is all that prevents the people from stoning them (14:10).[1]  Moshe's only interaction with the people involves prostrating himself before them;[2] but upon receiving God's indication that once again, He is ready to obliterate the people in His fury and start the nation anew, Moshe reverts to the familiar role of intercessor.




Comparing Moshe's prayer of intercession here to his previous efforts the last time the Jewish people are threatened with annihilation, after the sin of the Golden Calf, we discover several significant differences:


After the Golden Calf

(Shemot 32:11-13)

After the Sin of the Spies

(Bamidbar 14:13-19)

"God, why does Your wrath burn against Your people, which You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?


"Why should the Egyptians speak and say, 'For mischief he brought them out, to slay them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth'?


"Turn from Your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.


"Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisra'el, Your servants, to whom you swore by Yourself and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of, I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'"

"Then the Egyptians, that You brought this people up from among them in Your might, will hear, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land — for they have heard that You, God, are among this people; that You, God, are seen face-to-face; that Your cloud stands over them; and that You go before them in a pillar of cloud in daytime, and in a pillar of fire by night.


"Now, if You kill this entire people as one man, then the nations, which have heard of Your fame, will speak, saying, 'Because God was not able to bring this people into the land about which He swore to them, He has slain them in the wilderness.'


"And now, I beseech you, let the power of God be great, according to your statement, saying, 'God is long-suffering and of great kindness, bearing sin and transgression; but by no means does He clear the guilty, visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation.  Pardon, I beg you, the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, and as You have forgiven the people from Egypt even until now."


The first and most obvious difference is the number of arguments Moshe uses in defense of his people.  In the episode of the Golden Calf, Moshe advances three claims why God should forgive the Jewish people: God's overwhelming love for His people; chillul Hashem, bringing the Divine Name into disrepute (among the nations of the world); and the promises made long ago to the Patriarchs (Avot).  In our episode, Moshe only advances the chillul Hashem argument: that God must prevent the nations of the world from attributing the execution of the Jewish nation to God's inability to bring them into the land of Kena'an.  Some of the commentators wonder, "Why should justice be perverted simply for the sake of some fools?"[3]  However, the Ramban explains that the issue of chillul Hashem has universal ramifications:


God created humanity for the purpose of acknowledging and giving thanks to His Name.  When humanity sinned, only this people remained to publicize His oneness and that He is the God of the universe.  Therefore, if He were to destroy the Jewish people, the nations of the world would forget His deeds, and the whole purpose of the creation of humanity would be completely defeated…  Therefore, Moshe advances this argument in his prayer, and God accepts it (v. 20), "And God said to Moshe, 'I have forgiven in accordance with your words.'"


However, we have yet to understand why Moshe omits the other two arguments used in the Golden Calf episode.


Secondly, we see here Moshe mentioning the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Middot shel Rachamim) for the first time.  God teaches these attributes to Moshe after the Golden Calf episode (Shemot 34:6-7), in case the Jewish people will ever need to rely on His mercy again.  However, in reciting these attributes, Moshe appears to use a truncated variation, with only six middot!  Rashi and the Ibn Ezra do not view the omissions as significant, while others (notably the Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Bachya) attempt to explain the deletions.  




The Ramban (v. 17) uses the missing attributes as a springboard to discuss several fundamental issues of faith:


"According to your statement, saying" — what is the statement? "God is long-suffering" – both to the righteous and to the wicked.  When Moses ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, writing, "God is long-suffering."  Whereupon [Moshe] said to Him, "To the righteous [only]."  But God answered him, "Also to the wicked!"  Moshe then said, "The wicked – let them perish!"  Whereupon God said to him, "By your life!  You will eventually need to resort to this [attribute, that God is long-suffering even to sinners]."  When the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf and with the Spies, Moshe beseeched God to be long-suffering with them; the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, "Did you not tell Me that this [attribute] is for the righteous [only]?"  Whereupon Moshe answered Him, "But did You not tell me that it is also for the wicked?  'And now, I beseech you, let the power of God be great, according to your statement.'"  These are the words (based on Sanhedrin 111a) of Rashi…


Now Moshe mentions among the Divine attributes "long-suffering" and "of great kindness;" but he does not mention "truth", for according to the attribute of truth, they would have been guilty.  Nor does Moshe mention "guarding kindness to the thousands," because he does not pray for mercy here based on the merit of the Patriarchs (zekhut Avot), and therefore he does not mention Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov at all in this prayer.  The reason is because the Land was given to the Patriarchs, and it is from them that [the Israelites] were to inherit it; however, they rebel against their ancestors and reject the gift which the Patriarchs desired so much.  How could he say now, "Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisra'el, Your servants, to whom you swore by Yourself… 'and all this land that I have spoken of, I will give to your descendants'" (Shemot 32:13), since they were saying: We do not want this gift!


The first fundamental issue raised by the Ramban is a new understanding of the Attributes of Mercy.  Until now, we have assumed that their effectiveness lies in mentioning the entire set together.  However, the Ramban understands that each attribute reflects a certain approach to God's mercy, and external circumstances dictate when and which attribute should be mentioned.  Like a pharmacist mixing chemicals, Moshe must choose which attribute is most beneficial in advancing the Jewish people's case.


The second issue discussed by the Ramban is a clearer understanding of the mechanics of zekhut Avot – praying on behalf of the Patriarchs' merits.   The idea that a person can be forgiven for sins simply because his ancestor was a righteous person violates the cardinal principle of justice: that a person is responsible for his own actions.  What the Ramban is suggesting is that a person can rely on previous credit not due to biological ties, but only as long as that person demonstrates a willingness and capability to maintain those exceptional behaviors and values.  For this reason, Moshe can mention the Patriarchs by the Golden Calf episode, as the people had not fundamentally rejected God.  (According to the Ramban's interpretation, the sin of the Golden Calf is not one of idolatry, but of misunderstanding the prohibition of using images to represent God.)  However, once the people reject the Land of Israel, which their ancestors had cherished and struggled for, there is no possibility of mentioning Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as a potential source of clemency.  Returning to the Ramban, we find one final issue worthy of serious contemplation:


Moshe mentions here the attributes of "bearing sin and transgression," but he does not say "and error" (Shemot 34:7), because these people are willful transgressors and sinners [while "error" implies inadvertency].


However, I do not know why he does not mention the attributes "merciful" and "gracious."  Perhaps Moshe knows that judgment is already directed against them and that He will never absolve them; therefore, he prays only that [God be] long-suffering and not destroy them as one man, not slay them like sheep in the wilderness, dying in a plague.  And since Moshe only prays now for [God to] be long-suffering, God says to him, "I have forgiven in accordance with your words," meaning: I will be "long-suffering" towards them and "great in kindness." 


[Moshe] mentions visiting the sin of the fathers, meaning to say that even if He should not see fit to erase their sin, He should at least visit the sin of the fathers upon their children, thereby mitigating the severity of the punishment upon one generation; He should be long-suffering with them in meting out punishment to them.  It is because of this that there is a Divine decree to fix a weeping for them on this night (Tisha Be-Av) throughout their generations (Ta'anit 29a), since He visits their sins upon their descendants.


Does Moshe fail in his entreaty?  According to the Ramban, we could argue that he does: Moshe chooses not to demand complete forgiveness, and he feels incapable of achieving a complete pardon for the Jewish people; instead, he settles for a plea bargain, a deal that God accepts with "I have forgiven in accordance with your words." 


While these words form the chorus of the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy during the Selichot, the penitential prayers before the High Holy Days, the commentators do not understand them as God's acceptance of Moshe's entreaties.  The Seforno writes that God is explaining to Moshe that his words have no effect, as the gradual death of this generation remains God's intention throughout.  The Chizkuni goes further, understanding that God is saying to Moshe: I have already forgiven the people once (at the Golden Calf episode), and look where it has gotten Me! 


The Ramban's interpretation, however, is the most devastating.  Moshe either thinks that a request for full forgiveness will not be successful, or possibly, that the Jewish people are unworthy of receiving a full pardon.  Therefore, he chooses to restrict himself to asking for a reduced sentence.  God's response is thundering – "I have forgiven according to your words," implying: You have chosen to ask only for a reduced sentence – granted.  And had you asked for more?


That tantalizing question, unfortunately, history leaves unanswered.

[1]  Who is the unidentified "them" in "but the entire assembly said to pelt them with stones"?  According to Rashi, Yehoshua and Kalev are the targets.  Other editions of Rashi quote the Midrash Tanchuma that the people direct their rocks towards Moshe and Aharon, but, the Cloud of Glory intercedes and catches the projectiles.

[2] The rationale behind Moshe and Aharon falling on their faces is the subject of debate among the commentators.  According to Rav Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto, it is a common form of courtesy a potential speaker extends his listeners.  "When they see the people are ready to throw off the yoke of God and His prophet, they understand that if they speak, the people will silence them and not listen at all to their words.  Therefore, they fall on their faces as a request for permission to speak so that they will not be interrupted in their address.  They ask a favor, to be given a hearing.  But when Yehoshua and Kalev see Moshe and Aharon humiliating themselves before the people, the fire of God burns within them; they rend their garments and do not let [Moshe and Aharon] speak, but speak on their behalf."

[3] Commentary of the Akedat Yitzchak; see the Abarbanel, ad. loc.