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- 32)
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 sin… 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 crime.
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 across 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 no 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!