Parasha Ki Tisa: The guilty must pay

Who is to blame when a tragedy occurs to the Jewish people? Is it God's fault? Is it the fault of the Jewish leaders? Is it the fault of the Jewish people?

ki tissa 88 (photo credit: )
ki tissa 88
(photo credit: )
"Why, O Lord, are you so angry at your nation, whom you took out of the land of Egypt with great strength and with a strong hand?" (Exodus 32:11) Who is to blame when a tragedy occurs to the Jewish people? Is it God's fault? Is it the fault of the Jewish leaders? Is it the fault of the Jewish people? A careful look at this week's Torah portion will reveal the answer. The Israelites have come from the rapturous heights of the Revelation at Sinai, only to descend to tragic immorality with the worship of the Golden Calf. It almost seems as if their potentially glorious history will conclude before it really begins. God seems to blame the nation when He says to Moses: "Go forth and descend, because your nation which you have taken out of Egypt has become corrupted… and now allow Me to vent my anger against them and I will destroy them; I will make from you a new nation" (Exodus 32:7). From God's perspective, it is the Israelites who have defiled themselves by descending from heavenly purity to licentious idolatry. But Moses blames God, using almost the very words the Almighty used against Israel. "Why, O Lord, are You so angry at your nation whom you took out of the land of Egypt with great strength and with a strong hand?" (Exodus 32:11). In effect, Moses is criticizing God, who brought them into Egypt and now has taken them out of that idolatrous nation before they were really ready for a life of Torah. Yes, God may have wrought miracles to compel Pharaoh to let them go, and to let them cross the Reed (Red) Sea, but in effect, God's very power and strength pampered them; they never developed the inner resources to stand on their own while God and Moses (as it were) were otherwise occupied. And then, to a certain extent, Moses blames himself. After all, he was their leader, and perhaps should have prepared them better for a life of Divine service that would continue even in his absence. Indeed, Moses even suggests that he serve as a vicarious atonement for his nation: "And it happened the next day that Moses said to the nation: 'You have sinned a great sin; now I shall ascend to the Lord so that perhaps I may achieve forgiveness for your sin.' And Moses returned to the Lord and said: 'Please, this nation has sinned a great sin… and now perchance You will bear [literally take upon Yourself] their sin; and if not, blot me out now from your book which you have written" (Exodus 32:30-32). The rabbis of the Talmud even compare Moses to the suffering servant of Isaiah. They maintain that when Moses prayed to God that he be blotted out from God's Book of Life in order that the Israelites be forgiven, he was "courting death and counting himself as one of the transgressors in order that he might... suffer for their sins." (Isaiah 53:11,12, B.T. Sota 14 A) This idea sounds frighteningly like the vicarious atonement ascribed to the founder of Christianity, the major subject of Gibson's The Passion. Undoubtedly the entire concept of vicarious atonement stems from the sin offering, where an animal dies "instead of" the repentant individual as an expression of God's graciousness. Here our rabbis extend this notion to the Jewish leader who seems willing to take "ministerial responsibility." But God does not permit such vicarious atonement. He responds to Moses in no uncertain terms: "The one who has sinned against Me, he shall be blotted out from My book" (Exodus 32:33). And our Bible stresses this cardinal principle: "Parents shall not die because of their children and children shall not die because of their parents; each individual shall die because of his/her sin" (Deuteronomy 24:6). And so the Almighty continues to explain to Moses a fundamental truth of Jewish history and theology: "And now you [Moses] go and lead the nation to where I have spoken to you; behold My messengers shall walk before you, and when I exact punishment, I shall exact it upon those who have sinned" (Exodus 32:33). God has told Moses that He Himself is not yet ready to walk in the midst of the nation and show His face as the manifest leader of the people; to do so would mean an immediate system of Divine reward and punishment which would remove individual free will and make God ultimately responsible for Jewish history. God wants the nation to perfect itself and the world. Hence, God does not take responsibility for the nation's backsliding, nor does He allow blameless leaders to make vicarious atonement. Israel must take responsibility for what happens to Israel. This is one important way in which Judaism diverges from Christianity. Judaism believes that all humans have the inner strength to rise above their frailties and proclivities, and that mankind can and will perfect and redeem itself. God believes in us, despite our many failings; the least we can do is believe in ourselves. After all, we have His Torah, and are created in His image. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.