As Moses communed with God on Sinai, the Jewish people rejoiced in the service of the golden calf. Perceiving this, God told Moses: Go down, for your people which you brought up from Egypt have become corrupt (Exodus 32:7). The Talmud explains that God's instruction was more than merely a directive to descend the mountain (B. Berachot 32a). This is apparent from the continuation of the passage in which a conversation between Moses and the Almighty ensues, rather than Moses immediately leaving the Holy Presence.
The Talmud explains that God told Moses that his exalted station was as leader of the Jewish people, and once the people had sinned Moses could no longer lay claim to his high standing. At the news of his demotion from his lofty post, Moses's strength immediately waned and he had no vigor to even speak as an advocate for the sinful Jewish people.
Moses's inability to speak is indicated in the biblical passage by the initial opening of God's speech to Moses - vayedaber (and He spoke, v. 7) - and a subsequent, seemingly superfluous opening - vayomer (and He said, v. 9), with no interceding words offered by the enfeebled Moses.
The Almighty then instructed Moses: And now leave Me alone so that My wrath may flare against them and I will annihilate them (Exodus 32:10). Moses immediately comprehended that he had the power to entreat the Almighty, protest the impending punishment and intervene on behalf of the Jewish people. In light of this revelation, Moses strengthened himself to be able to pray and pleaded for mercy.
The Talmud illustrates the course of events with a parable: A king was angered by his son and he began to cuff him. The king's friend sat there witnessing the beating, but feared to speak out in defense of the prince. The king turned to the prince and said: "If it was not for this friend of mine who is sitting before me, I would kill you." At that point the friend realized that the matter was dependent on him, and he immediately rose to the defense of the prince and saved him.
One talmudic sage describes Moses's response with greater vividness. Before offering his explanation, the sage warned: "If the explanation was not written in scripture, it would be impossible to say it," acknowledging the audacity and perhaps danger of what he was about to present.
The sage continued: By God saying leave Me alone, we understand that Moses grabbed the Almighty like a person seizes a friend by the jacket lapels, and said - "Master of the universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them." One of the great hassidic masters before the Holocaust, Rabbi Haim Eluzar Shapiro found this graphic portrayal of Moses grabbing God by the lapels intriguing. Rabbi Haim Eluzar (1871-1937) was both hassidic master and the rabbi in Munkatch, formerly in Hungary, then in Czechoslovakia and today in Ukraine. This colorful personality, whose quick tongue offended many, was known for his legal acumen as well as his knowledge and understanding of the esoteric realms of the tradition.
Rabbi Haim Eluzar asks: Why is such physical imagery employed? Such corporeal descriptions clearly have no place when referring to the Almighty. It would have been more appropriate, he says, to depict Moses coming before the heavenly court with persuasive arguments and heartfelt urgings on behalf of his client, the Jewish people.
After raising his eyebrows at the talmudic passage, Rabbi Haim Eluzar offers an insightful explanation for the dramatic description. He begins by assessing the case at hand and reaching the conclusion that God was truly justified in destroying the Jewish people, for the crime was great and the intended retribution appropriate. The only matter preventing the execution of the judgment was the likely response of the nations of the world, in particular Egypt, which would interpret the episode as an apparent weakness in God's ability to lead the recently redeemed chosen people into the Promised Land. It would appear as though the Almighty's power was not so all-mighty. The likelihood of such heresies left God in an untenable position: The Almighty had no choice but to forgive the Jewish people, not because they deserved forgiveness, but for the sake of His reputation.
The counsel for the defense, Moses, fully understood the situation. The Jewish people were indeed guilty. External issues, however, made the situation such that punishment could not be seriously entertained. It was these peripheral factors, these garments that bedecked the true state of events, that Moses evoked when arguing on behalf of the Jewish people. Figuratively, Moses grabbed the lapels of God's garments, persuasively indicating that external factors dictated forgiveness for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Haim Eluzar ends his explanation, as he so often finishes his expositions, with encouraging words alluding to a better era when all will recognize God's dominion. In this conclusion he expertly cites the biblical promise of a day on which your teacher shall not hide himself anymore (Isaiah 30:20); here the prophet employs the root k-n-f (hide) a root that also can refer to the corner of a garment (see Numbers 15:38).
Rabbi Haim Eluzar's interpretation indicates the significance of a desecration of God's name. So commanding is this value that it overrides the regular dictates of justice. In this context we can understand another biblical passage in which God pledges salvation to the Jewish people and a return to the Promised Land (Ezekiel 36). The promise is granted, not for the sake of the undeserving Jewish people, but for the forsaken Land of Israel whose desolation is a source of desecration of God's name. Once again the profanation of the divine name is a consideration that takes precedence over regular rules of judgment.
Thus it appears that the desecration of the divine is so acute that it serves as an overarching principle that should be contemplated before punishment is meted out. Indeed, any act undertaken should be carefully considered for a possible profanation of God's name.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.