February 18, 2011
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #777, Ki Sisa, Parsha Thought

When Moses pleads with G-d to spare the Jewish people for having worshipped the golden calf, he presents several arguments in their defense, the first of which is:

“Why, O G-d, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?”

What defense exactly is Moses presenting here on behalf of the Jewish people?

Presumably, his argument is: Why would G-d perform such miracles for a people He was going to destroy? Or in other words: Why would He destroy a people in whom He had invested so much? However, if that was a valid defense it could also be used to debate any and all punishment for sin. Why would G-d perform miracles for a people and then punish them?

In addition, the defense that G-d took them out with “great power and with a strong hand” could work against them. It can be presented as a strong argument to magnify their guilt. G-d could have replied to Moses, ‘Look at the ungrateful nation who returned My kindness to them with unfaithfulness!’

We can answer this question and understand the import of Moses’ defense in light of the Rebbe’s analysis of the paragraph in the Hagada that describes G-d’s role in the Exodus from Egypt:

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And G-d took us out of there with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm. And if G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt we, our children and our children’s children would still be subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

The Rebbe cites the following question raised by commentators:

How can it be said that if G-d had not taken us out of Egypt “we and our children and children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt?” Wasn’t our father Abraham told that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years? That means that after 400 years they would be free even without any special act of Divine intervention. Why then do we attribute our freedom to a special act of G-d?

The Rebbe answers that when the Jewish nation was liberated from Egypt they had not fulfilled their mission there. Their objective was to refine the world that had been tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the persecution they endured, the Jewish people had so assimilated the Egyptian life style that they had become essentially indistinguishable from the Egyptians.

Logic and justice would have demanded that they remain as slaves in Egypt until such time that they succeed in achieving their goal of refinement. This means that we would have to remain in Egyptian exile until the Messianic Age. The 400-year deadline was based on the assumption and premise that they would have succeeded in their mission of refining the world. Failure to do that would seem to demand that they remain in exile indefinitely.

In order for G-d to liberate them then, He had to “pass over” and override His own attribute of justice, which still demanded that they remain slaves in Egypt until “mission accomplished.”

G-d did not pay any attention to the legitimate demand of strict justice to have them remain in Egypt. Instead, He used His “great power and strong hand” to overrule that demand of justice, and He liberated them from Egyptian bondage prematurely despite the “objection” of His attribute of justice.

However, as a result of their premature departure they were still under the influence of the Egyptian exile. This meant that while they were physically out of Egypt, the Egyptian mindset had not been expunged from their system.

We can now understand the import of Moses’ defense of the Jewish people. By stating that G-d had liberated the Jews with “great power and with a strong hand” Moses was not attempting to underscore the great miracles that accompanied the Exodus. Rather he was suggesting that G-d could not have any real complaints against them for having regressed, considering the fact that they were taken out of Egypt prematurely by G-d’s exercising ”His great power and strong hand.” If not for G-d’s intervention at that time we would not have left Egypt, and we would have essentially assimilated totally into the Egyptian way of life.

Moses’ argument thus was that their behavior was the result of G-d’s having taking them out of Egypt prematurely and that they could not be held totally accountable for their misbehavior. When they left Egypt they took the Egyptian galut mentality with them, and it was this that influenced them to stray from the Torah. Moses thus argued successfully that under these circumstances their sin was pardonable and that they deserved to be spared.

We can now understand how the next verse follows on and flows from this one. In the next verse Moses advances what seems to be a second defense of the Jewish people: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with evil intent to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth.’” The question can be raised, why would they assume that G-d took them out of Egypt to destroy them? Would not the average observer consider that He destroyed them because they sinned after their liberation?

However, in light of the above explanation of Moses’ defense, this charge of the nation follows logically from the preceding defense of Moses. If the Jewish people were not ready to leave Egypt and required a special show of strength by G-d, why then did G-d liberate them? The answer that they might have offered could have been that G-d liberated them not because He chose them as His nation but, on the contrary, that it was because they were so evil that they had to be separated from Egypt and destroyed.

But such an argument would have led to a terrible distortion since it really would have implied that the Jewish people were worse than the Egyptians and, thus, would have given them license to continue in their evil ways with impunity.

What lesson can be derived from Moses’ argument to G-d in our own day and age?

The fact that G-d accepted Moses’ argument can also serve as a defense of our behavior as a people throughout our existence in exile. Exile is a stifling and debilitating experience. Exile, and the mentality it engenders, desensitizes us to everything spiritual and G-dly. G-d cannot therefore hold our inadequacies against us as long as He keeps us in exile.

To be sure, as individuals, we cannot look for excuses to justify our errant behavior. The fact that we know that we are in exile and that we are well aware of exile’s effects on us should motivate us to resist exile and get it out of our system. This we can do by learning about Moshiach and living our lives in consonance with Moshiach ideals. However, as a people we have a right, even an obligation, to come before G-d and defend our/His people by citing the destructive force of exile.

And while G-d does not threaten us with annihilation as He did then—G-d forbid—we are going through an unprecedented period of spiritual devastation by virtue of the high rate of assimilation that has plagued the Jewish community in the last century, and particularly in the last few decades.

We therefore must approach G-d now as did Moses then and plead as we do in our daily prayers, “Why is He allowing us to lose so many of our brethren because of exile conditions? Bring an end to the destructive forces of exile that threaten to consume large segments of the Jewish nation.”

If we are guilty of creating our own “golden calves” it is because we are products of millennia of exile. And it is only by virtue of G-d’s “great power and strong hand” that we have survived at all. Therefore, we respectfully “demand” of G-d that He take us out of exile by simultaneously taking the exile out of us and keeping the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bring us back to our land with the true and complete redemption, now!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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