The Torah reading for Shabbat Chol ha-Mo'eid Pesach describes scenes on Mount Sinai following the incident of the Golden Calf including Moses asking to see God's presence and learning 13 divine attributes (middot) worthy of human imitation.
The selection begins with Moses' supplications to God on behalf of the Israelite people. God is so furious with the people for worshiping an idol that God is prepared to destroy them. Here is an excerpt from the conversation between Moses and God:
"Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people." And God said, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." (Exodus 33:13-14)
Moses succeeds in appealing to God's mercy and sparing the Jewish people. "Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose: Moses asked three things of the Holy One, and they were granted to him. He asked that the Presence rest upon Israel, and it was granted to him, for it is said, Is it not in that Thou goest with us? (Exodus 33:16) He asked that the Presence not rest upon the idolaters, and it was granted to him, for the verse goes on to say, So that we are distinguished, I and Thy people. (Ibid) He asked that the he be shown the ways of the Holy One, and it was granted to him, for it is said, Show me now Thy ways (Exodus 33:13)." (B'rachot 7a)
Moses first appeals to God by referring to his personal relationship with God. Essentially, Moses says, "Even if you are angry at the Israelites, continue to stay with us for my sake." When God chooses Moses at the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3, God makes it clear that Moses is needed to free the people from Egypt and deliver them to the Promised Land; You shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt. (3:10) Moses reminds God that God's reputation rests on the relationship between God and God's people. At the burning bush, God told Moses to free My people, and now Moses reminds God, This nation is Your people. More than one parent saying to the other, "Look what your child has done," Moses' statement reminds God that the covenant is bilateral between God and God's people; their destinies are inextricably intertwined.
God says, Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation. (Exodus 32:10). Rashi comments that Moses' responds directly to the divine anger by holding up a verbal mirror and allowing God, as it were, to see the consequences of such a decision. Indeed, one of the rabbinic definitions of wisdom is lirot et hanolad, to see Moses' future consequences. Destroying the people because they err and beginning again with Moses' descendants will not be a new start, but a testament to the broken covenant. Moses appealed to divine compassion, and this time, the appeal worked.
The Hebrew idiom translated here as I will go (literally My face will go), indicates God's intimate presence, the Shechinah. (Plaut, 592) At first we see God's judgment and the wrath at an unfaithful people. Then, as a result of Moses' successful appeal, God's empathy achieves preeminent status.
This compassionate and protective aspect of God balances the judgmental dimension of God as represented in this scene. Ultimately, not only does God continue in the lead, but God says also, I will lighten your burden. Imagine the dialogue between Moses and God as one between two parents when a child has gone astray. Many of us might be convinced by Moses' tactics to be compliant rather than committed, but God's response is loving, compassionate and shows "growth." God assumes a new role for the people that is sympathetic toward the scars of their experience in Egypt. Rashi explains God's response: "I will no more send an angel with you, but I myself will go. This stands in contrast to the messenger God sent to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Apparently, the dialogue with Moses was important enough to warrant God's unmediated presence.
In a related context, the Rabbis suggested that even God prays. The content of the putative divine prayer is both telling and fitting: "May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger and that My mercy overcome My sterner attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of strict judgment." Amen.
- In our short selection, God has a change of heart. What element of Moses' argument do you think was most effective, or do you have another explanation or interpretation of this scene?
- How do you understand the different attributes of God? Make your own list. Compare and contrast it to a list of your own varied traits.
- What were the burdens facing Moses and the people? What are some modern day burdens that we need God to lead us through?
For Further Learning
Prepare a skit for the Passover Shabbat table on this reconciliation between Moses, the people, and God. Have a narrator say a few words in the beginning about why God didn't want to continue leading the people. Use Exodus 33:12-19 to create a script. Following the skit, ask others at the table what they feel like to be the Israelites. How does it feel that Moses stuck up for you? Are you sorry you angered God? What is it like to be around a leader like Moses?
Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Exodus 33:12-34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657-661; Revised Edition, pp. 592-596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508-512