Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Defending the Indefensible
After getting over the initial shock of seeing his fledgling nation serving
a golden calf, Moshe finds himself with a big mess on his hands - both
literally and figuratively. Literally, because in a demonstration of anger
and exasperation, Moshe tossed the holy Tablets of the Covenant
("Luchos Ha-bris") from his hands in front of the entire nation, breaking
the stones into many pieces. Figuratively, there was the issue of how to
deal with the Divine wrath that was aroused as a result of bowing down
to a molten image, and a nation who at the drop of a hat was seemingly
ready to exchange something so great for something so petty.
On the next day [after having made the calf], Moshe said to the nation,
"You have committed a most grievous sin. Now, I will ascend to
Hashem - perhaps I will gain atonement..." Moshe returned to Hashem
and said, "I beg - this nation has committed a most grievous sin; they
made themselves a golden god. Now, please forgive their sin..." (32:30-
What strikes the reader as strange in Moshe's appeal to Hashem's Divine
mercy is that instead of trying to diminish the nation's wrongdoing, he
actually magnifies it! Behold this nation has committed a most grievous
Defence lawyers are not, as a rule, in the habit of trying to convince the
judge as to the seriousness of their client's crime - the prosecution will
no doubt take care of that. The goal of the defence is to prove their
client's innocence, or barring that, at least demonstrate that what may
appear to be a heinous crime is in fact not as bad as it appears on the
surface, because of extenuating circumstances, etc. One can only imagine
the glee of the prosecution were the defence to begin its arguments by
saying, "Your honour - I don't think the court realizes the true extent of
my clients immorality..." So why does Moshe begin his appeal for Divine
mercy by amplifying their sin?
Imagine that the king's own brother, in a moment of jealousy and lust,
stole precious jewels from the royal treasure chamber. What to do?
Normally stealing from the royal treasury warrants the death penalty; but
the king is hardly ready to have his own brother killed. On the other
hand, to administer a lesser punishment would make it seem as if the
crime were not so severe after all. In such circumstances, the king has
no choice but extend a royal pardon, forgiving his brother for his grave
wrongdoing, while at the same time making it clear that this was an
exceptional case, but by no means diminishing the graveness of the
Let's say that in the throes of an extreme temper-tantrum, an
unbalanced student were to (G-d forbid) strike his rebbe across the face,
or a child his parent. Should the principal send the student home for a
day? A week? A month? Should the student/child be made to write
10,000 times (neatly!) "I will not (b'li neder) strike my rebbe/father
the face."? Would that do the trick? Could even a heavy-duty spanking
really do justice for so grave an incident?
There are crimes and sins so serious and so shockingly atrocious that any
punishment at all, no matter how severe, could never do them justice.
In such circumstances, says the Ma'asei Hashem, the only logical thing to
do is to grant the sinner (assuming he is penitent) an outright pardon. It
is as if to say: Were we to punish according to the crime, we could not
come up with a punishment severe enough to suit it. This, he explains,
is the basis of Moshe's appeal to Hashem: I beg - this nation has committed
a most grievous sin; they made themselves a golden god - and what
punishment, outside of obliterating an entire nation, could really be
considered appropriate for a nation so foolish as to forsake the Eternal
G-d in exchange for a worthless idol? Is there any retribution that could
do them justice? Obviously not! So please forgive their sin... - grant them
Your Divine pardon, as only You can.
There is an important lesson here for parents and educators: While as
a rule children must be held responsible for their actions, and
punishment is a logical consequence for wrongdoing, there are
circumstances where punishment just doesn't make sense; where by
punishing what we're actually doing is putting a "price-tag" on the crime.
Our nature is to demand retribution; if there was a crime, there must
be repercussions! While this is usually true, and indeed the Torah itself
delineates various and sundry punishments and penalties for different
crimes and iniquities, here we see that sometimes to punish is to
diminish the extent of the crime by implying that one can somehow
"right" the wrong that has been done by simply accepting its
consequences. It's not by any means saying that the Torah advocates a
consequence-less do-as-you-please world; just that we entertain the
possibility that there are circumstances whereby errors may be forgiven
without due punishment, especially when the perpetrator recognises and
acknowledges the severity of their wrongdoing.
Which brings us to perhaps an alternate but related explanation of
Moshe's words, wherein he magnifies his nation's sin. The most critical
aspect of repentance is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing. An addict,
while still in a state of denial ("I'm not really an alcoholic..."), stands
chance of ever overcoming his addiction. So too, the sinner - as long as
his inner defence mechanism is still spewing forth arguments to justify
and rationalize what he did - stands no chance of achieving true
repentance, remorse, and ultimately forgiveness. It's only when the sinner
(or in this case their emissary) can say, "Behold, I have sinned gravely...
" without any ifs-ands-or-buts, that he's reached the level of the penitent,
and can be forgiven.
Moshe doesn't try and cover things up, he doesn't make excuses, and he
offers no defence. This nation has sinned gravely - and they know it. Now
please forgive them... Sometimes the best excuse is no excuse at all. To
admit we've done wrong, without any qualifiers, isn't easy. By nature we
always try to find some element of virtue, so that things - even when
they're bad - just aren't as bad as they seem. To stand with dignity and
face up to an error without trying to coat it with some weak, feeble
justification, can sometimes be the best defence of all.
Have a good Shabbos.
Please pray for Ben Tzion Eliyahu ben Liba Leah, who is in
desperate need of a Refuah Shleimah!
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.