We read in Parashat Ki-Tisa that after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe pleaded to God to forgive the people, and he introduced his plea by acknowledging, “This nation has committed a grave sin – it made a golden deity” (32:31).
The simple reading of this verse (as Ibn Ezra explains) is that Moshe here confessed on the people’s behalf, as only after acknowledging guilt can one request forgiveness. Indeed, the Rambam, in Hilkhot Teshuva (2:3), cites this verse as proof that when one confesses his sin when repenting, he must specify the wrongful act – just as Moshe here specified what the people had done. The Rambam interpreted this verse as an example and model of vidui – confession, one of the indispensable components of repentance, as one cannot begin to request for forgiveness and seek atonement without acknowledging guilt.
However, Rav Yitzchak of Vorki offered a deeper reading of this verse, suggesting that this “confession” was, in fact, a crucial part of Moshe’s plea on the people’s behalf. Rav Yitzchak of Vorki drew a comparison to a child who climbs on a table and then falls off and is hurt. If the injury is not significant, the parent will scold the child for his dangerous, reckless behavior. But if the child is seriously hurt, the parent will immediately rush to help the child, bring him to a doctor if necessary, and do anything he can to comfort and console him. Similarly, Rav Yitzchak of Vorki explains, Moshe was arguing to God that Benei Yisrael at this time needed compassion, not anger, because they had suffered a severe spiritual “injury.” The sin of the golden calf – when the people worshipped a graven image just weeks after beholding God’s revelation – extended beyond mere wrongdoing, and constituted a spiritual malady. Their condition was like that of a child who acted unsafely and ended up seriously hurt. And so what they needed was not anger, but rather compassion and assistance to recover. Moshe therefore began his petition by exclaiming, “This nation has committed a grave sin” – not as an acknowledgment of guilt, but rather as an appeal for mercy.
This chassidic teaching draws our attention to the fact that sometimes, the appropriate response to wrongdoing is not anger and disciplinary measures, but rather love and compassion. Anger, in many instances, leads us to overlook the underlying “injury” which the child suffers, the pain that either results from the wrongful act or that led the child to commit the wrongful act. Even those who have acted improperly require and deserve compassion and help – and sometimes, even more so than others.