Because of the Fathers Who Did Your Bidding
This week's parasha features a moment of tremendous tension surpassed in the Torah only by the trapping of Israel between the sea and the advancing Egyptian cavalry. Upon the mountain to receive the Law, Moses is informed by God that the people have made a golden calf. Furious at the violation of God's word, God threatens to wipe out the Israelites, telling Moses: "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). What happens next is remarkable in its simplicity and dramatic for its power. Moses prays to God and somehow persuades Him to spare the people of Israel.
But Moses implored Hashem his God, saying, "Let not Your anger, Hashem, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.' Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them 'I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever." And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people (ibid. 11-14).
It seems to me that Moses offers three arguments on behalf of his people. He first asks God how He could destroy a people for whom He went to so much trouble to save. This isn't such a compelling argument and elicits no response from God. Moses tries a second approach: If you kill off the nation, the Egyptians (and indeed the entire world) will mock You, claiming that God took the Israelites from bondage only to slaughter them in the desert. Perhaps the Jews fell out of God's favor or maybe God could not sustain the people in the barrenness. This reasoning, as well, does not convince God and still His plan endures. Lastly, Moses brings up his ancestors and asks God to remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Suddenly - magic! "And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people." What is it about the patriarchs that changed God's mind? This essay will explore two explanations for the power of Moses' third prayer.
Our first track interprets Moses' request as an appeal to "zekhut avot," the merits of the fathers. Before I analyze the efficacy of this technique, I present a rabbinic commentary to our story.
Why did Moses see fit to mention Abraham at this point? When the nation committed that act (of idolatry) and Moses begged God to be merciful, God answered "How can I possibly accept their repentance? Yesterday, I gave them the Ten Commandments and they have turned around and violated them." Rabbi Simlai explained the episode with an analogy: A king had a good friend who gave the king ten jewels for safe-keeping, and died shortly afterwards. In time, the king became engaged to marry the daughter of his friend, and as an engagement present gave her a different set of ten stones - which she promptly lost! Furious, the king threatened to kill her. The girl's guardian heard about the incident and said to the king "Although your fiancee has lost your ten jewels, remember that her father still has an equal amount in your safe - let those replace the lost ones." This is what Moses said to the Holy One may He be blessed - if the nation has transgressed all ten of the commandments, remember that you tested their forefather with ten tests and he passed every one. Let his ten replace their ten (Midrash Tanchuma paragraph 24).
This midrash presents Moses as trying to use the merits of Abraham to save the Jewish people from being destroyed following a direct violation of the biblical command "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4-5). Moses posits that although the people have sinned, their ancestor was righteous (according to the verse all THREE patriarchs are to be included in this argument) and therefore, God should reconsider wiping them out. What sense does this make? Why should Moses think that the nation should benefit from deeds performed by somebody else hundreds of years ago? In contemporary terms, is it logical for one person to receive benefits, a pay-check say, based on the performance of another person? What system of fairness does this episode purport to defend?
To put it bluntly, Moses is not appealing to God's sense of fairness but to God's sense of compassion. In Jewish philosophy, a popular way of understanding God's relationship with humanity is to view God as dealing with the world from two opposite directions: God rules the world with an attribute of pure justice - "DIN," but on the other hand relates to humans with an attribute of mercy - "RACHAMIM." What is mercy? When somebody's actions are being reviewed by a judge, pure justice weighs the significance of crimes committed and transmutes them to punishment deserved. For example, in Judaism's system of law, if a thief is caught with stolen goods, he must return the property and, as a fine, pay the owner the full value of his theft - effectively paying double. Mercy or compassion have no place in such a case - you get what you deserve. God relates to people with a system of justice known as Reward and Punishment. The Torah claims that if Jews behave themselves and obey the word of God, they will receive material rewards, whereas if they disobey God and sin, they will be punished. The fact that it is often difficult to detect traces of cause and effect in the real world is besides the point, which is that God is prepared to react to the actions of man.
On the other hand, Judaism also believes God to be a compassionate father who does not only relate to His children by measuring their behavior against the letter of the law. In fact, there is a (minority) opinion that says that if God were to judge humans strictly by their actions, even the slightest sin would yield death. Disobeying even the simplest command of the Lord, creator of the universe, is inexcusable - the affront to God warrants the most severe of punishments regardless of the sin committed. No, Judaism believes that God recognizes the fallibility of mankind, mercifully withholding justice even when people deserve to be punished. This point is the foundation for all prayer: asking God to overlook our mistakes and to let us live, providing us with the good things in life. Simply put, prayer is an appeal to God's sense of mercy. But prayer rarely relies on pure mercy - asking God to be merciful just because we want to live. It is usually more complex than that and Moses' request illustrates a corollary of an appeal to pure mercy.
According to the Midrash's interpretation of Moses' third argument, the Jewish leader employs an idea known as Zekhut Avot - merits of the fathers. This philosophy believes that merits gained through obedience to God or good behavior can somehow be transferred to other people such as descendants. Clearly, this is not logical and would never work within the framework of pure justice. Nevertheless, it does fit quite well with our understanding of mercy while being a step below pure mercy. If God (or a human) were to act out of pure mercy, there would be no need to recall anybody's merits - compassion would be employed simply because the judge is being kind. Zekhut Avot suggests that there is a greater chance of invoking sympathy and compassion if we lean on somebody else's merits for support. When humans operate in the same way it's called nepotism. It isn't logical to ask for a job because the boss went to college with your brother, but sometimes that approach will be more successful than applying on individual merit alone. Moses knows that were the nation's fate to be decided on their actions alone, the people would be in big trouble, but he hopes that the points that Abraham their ancestor collected years ago will bea ble to save them.
Abraham himself uses this technique in Genesis chapter 18. Begging God not to destroy Sodom, the patriarch's prayers are actually a mixture of appeals to God's sense of justice and sense of mercy. Verse 23 states "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" Abraham asks God whether it is fair, just, to destroy an entire town without regard for the fact that some of its inhabitants may be righteous. He is arguing that each individual must be judged on his own merits. But then comes verse 24 where Abraham says "Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city! Will you indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?" The two verses represent completely opposite philosophies. 23 asks for justice, but 24 asks for mercy - on-merit: what Abraham means in verse 24 is that somehow the merits of 50 righteous people (if they exist) should be spread over the town and serve to save even the wicked. This is not justice, it is a form of compassion. Verse 25 begins by returning to the logic of 23: "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike." Interestingly, the second part of verse 25 can be read in two ways. The more common reading sees the argument as a rhetorical question: "Far be it from you: shall the judge of all the earth not deal justly?" thus representing another plea for justice. But these words can also be understood as a demand: "Far be it from you: judge of all the earth, don't do justice!" - be merciful.
Certainly, the rest of the dialogue between God and Abraham is a discussion about mercy. God agrees that the merits of 50 can save the town; then he agrees to the merits of 45 being sufficient and so on. Each time the number drops, it is as if God is willing to spread the merits of the righteous a little thinner to cover the whole town. For some reason "10 righteous people" represents God's limit at the end of the dialogue - this form of mercy that Abraham is asking for apparently has to have some foundation to work with. In an interesting footnote to this story, Genesis 19:29 tells us that Abraham's nephew Lot, the only survivor of Sodom (with his daughters),was himself only saved because of the merits of Abraham and not due to his own worth.
Lest one argue that Abraham's appeal to mercy didn't work because in the end God did what He had originally planned and destroyed the town, it must be noticed that God did respond to Abraham's pleas, changing His plan six times throughout the conversation. It is only because the people of Sodom couldn't muster up 10 righteous people that they were eventually obliterated.
We thus see that Moses' third argument is based on an historical precedent. Moses knows a request for this type of mercy does work which is why he employs it in his attempts to save Israel. Later generations, of course, picked up this technique which explains the presence of the first blessing in the Amida service - Birkat Avot. One of the humble attitudes that Jews traditionally take in addressing their God is that they are worthless sinners. That's not a point we are going to debate here, but recognizing that this tendency exists helps to explain why the patriarchs are listed in the Amida. Standing before the Creator, the Jew might feel that he has no right to ask God for anything since he believes that he deserves nothing. The patriarchs, on the other hand, were righteous people who performed "kindnesses." What we have here is a perfect example of asking for mercy while leaning on the merits of others. Abraham was the first to use this technique and generations of Jews, taking his lead, have asked for the rewards of his achievements.
There is another approach to interpreting Moses' third prayer which, ironically, sees his plea as appealing to God's sense of justice - MIDAT HA-DIN. Let us return to the end of our passage. The Torah indicates that God has been persuaded by saying that He renounced the punishment that He planned for the people. The Hebrew verb in the verse is VA-YINACHEM which is a difficult term to translate in this context because it usually means "to regret."
When for example, the Torah reports God's dismay with the way that humanity has turned out, revealing God's plan to destroy the earth as an introduction to the story of Noah, the text says "VA-YINACHEM HASHEM KI ASA ET HA-ADAM" - and God regretted having made man.
There is, of course, a philosophical problem with presenting God as regretting. Feeling remorse reflects an admission of error and indeed, God seems to be saying in Genesis 6:6 that He made a mistake in creating Man, and had He the opportunity to do it all over again, He would leave Man out of creation. Well, this certainly rubs us the wrong way, because we tend to think of God as being infallible. And so, it is much more comfortable to explain that by VA-YINACHEM HASHEM, the Torah means that God changes direction. Due to the sins of mankind, God's initial plan to populate the earth with all the descendants of Adam will have to abandoned for Plan B, which is to populate the earth with the descendants of Noah.
This translation of the verb fits our story of Moses' prayer very nicely. Surely, God does not regret abandoning his initial plan to destroy the people, He is merely shifting directions, taking a new tack and letting Israel live. An interesting appearance of this verb appears in a speech by Bil'am in Numbers 23. Bil'am is a wizard hired by King Balak of Moav to curse the nation of Israel, but somehow all his utterances come out as blessings. At one point, Bil'am explains to Balak that he cannot possibly curse Israel to any effect because God has decreed that the nation will be successful. "God is not a man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?" (Numbers 23:19). In the Hebrew original, Bil'am tells Balak that God is not like a man who will "YITNACHEM" - who will change His mind.
But we have already seen two cases where God does change His mind: once following Moses' prayer - for the benefit of mankind, and another following the sin of humanity- for the detriment of mankind. Among the commentaries who struggle with this apparent contradiction is Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor (12th century) who explains that unlike man who is capricious and who changes his mind without reason, ignoring promises without warning, God stands by his commitments. God will revoke a promise if the recipient has sinned or broken his end of a deal - as was the case with antediluvian civilization, but He will not randomly break His word.
It is to this rule that Moses turns when he tells God "Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them 'I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.'" Essentially, Moses is telling God that if He destroys the people of Israel He will be breaking His promises to their ancestors to bring them to the Promised Land.
Note that God has also made this promise to the nation of Israel directly in Exodus 6:8. There God tells Moses to address the people and to prepare them for salvation. "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am the Lord." It is quite clear why Moses does not invoke that promise, deferring to an earlier one: the nation has sinned and it is within God's rights to revoke His promise to them. But the promise to the patriarchs endures and as a matter of fairness, God must play by His rules and standby His oath.
In conclusion, I would like to point out one more effect that Moses' appeasement has. When God tells Moses about the calf He says "Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely." God distances Himself from the nation almost like one parent who says to the other "Look what your son did." But after Moses' pleas the Torah says "And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people." Whether by appealing to mercy or justice, Moses has persuaded God to take His nation back.