The Gemara comments in Masekhet Berakhot (32a) that when Moshe pleaded to God on Benei Yisrael’s behalf after they worshipped the golden calf, he defended them with the claim that God in a sense facilitated the sin by showering them with gold: “This is what Moshe said before the Almighty: Master of the world! It is because of the silver and gold that You showered upon Israel until they said, ‘Enough!’ that caused them to make the calf.”
Much has been written to explain the connection between Benei Yisrael’s wealth and their desire to fashion and worship idol, but there is also another intriguing point that arises from the Gemara’s comment. The vast amounts of gold and silver in Benei Yisrael’s possession at Mount Sinai came from the Egyptians. The Torah tells of how Benei Yisrael took the Egyptians’ possessions with them as they left the country (Shemot 12:35-36), and several Midrashic sources (such as Mekhilta, Bo 13; Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:54) relate that the Egyptians decorated their chariots with gold and silver when they pursued Benei Yisrael, and these washed ashore after the Egyptians were drowned at sea. On both these occasions – the night of the Exodus, and following the miracle of the sea – Benei Yisrael accumulated vast amounts of riches. Interestingly enough, regarding both these occasions, Chazal note a clear distinction between Moshe and the rest of the people. The Mekhilta (to 13:19) tells that when Benei Yisrael left Egypt, the people were preoccupied with collecting spoils, whereas Moshe chose instead to fulfill the mitzva of retrieving Yosef’s remains so they could be brought to the Land of Israel for burial. And later (15:22), the Mekhilta comments that Moshe had to expend great efforts to convince the people to leave the shores of the Yam Suf after crossing the sea, as they wanted to stay and collect all the lavish decorations that washed ashore. Rather than stay and collect wealth, Moshe felt that the people should move on to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.
It emerges, then, that Moshe did not participate, at least not the way the rest of the nation did, in the collection of gold and silver, and on the second occasion, he even opposed it. While it is true that God showered Benei Yisrael with wealth, they needed to take the time to collect it – something which Moshe declined to do, as he prioritized loftier goals and ideals.
Off this backdrop, Moshe’s defense of Benei Yisrael becomes truly remarkable. He pointed to the fact that they were tempted to sin by their wealth – even though he himself did not collect wealth as they did. When the people were busy collecting spoils, Moshe had his sights set upon more important matters, and yet, he accepted their decision and still viewed their wealth as a mitigating factor on the basis of which their sin could be forgiven. He opposed, or at least distanced himself from, the accumulation of gold and silver, but he did not hesitate to defend Benei Yisrael by blaming their grave mistake on their gold and silver.
We have much to learn from Moshe about the way we ought to relate to others who fall short of the standards that we set for ourselves and try to follow. Moshe was able to understand and evaluate Benei Yisrael on their level. He recognized that while he felt no need to collect gold and silver in Egypt or at the sea, it was natural for Benei Yisrael to do so, and it was then natural for this wealth to pose a formidable spiritual challenge which they failed to overcome. Rather than react to the people by saying, “You see, if you would have refrained from collecting spoils as I did, this would not have happened,” he instead looked upon them with sensitivity and understanding. He related to them on their level, as they were, without comparing them to himself. We can feel proud of our achievements, but we must not look disdainfully upon those who have not reached the standards to which we strive. We must follow Moshe’s example of sensitivity and favorable judgment, of going to great lengths to defend and look positively upon the people around us, rather than viewing them with condescension and a feeling of superiority.