Parshat Ki Tisa by Stephanie Pell
In elucidating one of the most complex principles in the Torah, reward and punishment, Rambam makes use of a particularly intriguing pasuk in Ki Tisa. He states:
“The eleventh principle is that God rewards those who obey the commandments of the Torah, and punishes those who violate its prohibitions…The Torah teaches us this principle in the following account. Moshe said to God ‘If you will, then forgive their sin, but if not then extinguish me.‘ God answered ‘The one who has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book’ (Exodus 32:32-3). This shows that God knows both the obedient and the sinner, rewarding one and punishing the other.” (Principle #11, Rambam’s commentary to chapter 10 of Mishna Sanhedrin).
The plain meaning of the Rambam’s commentary seems to create two relatively simple categories, the “obedient” and the “sinner”. However, if we read the pasuk he has chosen to clarify this principle (Exodus 32:32) back into its original context, these categories are perhaps more fluid and complex then at first glance. The most obvious reading of the pasuk is that Moshe is responding to God’s dictate from an earlier pasuk, (Exodus 32:9) where God suggests God will blot out all of the people and make a nation exclusively of Moshe. Read in this light, Moshe’s response is another way of saying, “If you will not forgive the people, I want no part of your book”. This reading supports a relatively simple understanding of the “obedient” and the “sinner”, Moshe being the “obedient” and the people having just worshiped the golden calf, “sinners”.
Sforno presents a slightly more nuanced perspective. He suggests that Moshe’s request indicates that the erasure of his name from God’s “book” would somehow atone for the sin of those who participated in the ritual of building the calf. This reading takes us one step further from the simple categories of the obedient and the sinner by implying that it may be possible for Moshe to take action on behalf of those who have transgressed God’s law.
What if Moshe’s request in Exodus 32:32 does not merely posit the idea that his name can blotted out, thereby repenting in place of those that created the calf but that he himself is to blame? The Mekor Mayim Chaim suggests this idea when writing on the relationship between leaders and their followers. He writes that they can be compared to an individual holding a long piece of string, with the top end between her fingers and the bottom touching the ground. If the person moves the top of the string even so slightly, the bottom will move as well. He compares the top of the string – the “head” – to the head of the generation. Just as the head of the string causes the bottom to move, so too does the head of the generation impact those lower down.
Read in this light, Moshe’s request blurs the distinctions between “I” and “them”, between those who transgress and those who are seemingly innocent. While God ultimately rejects Moshe’s request, I would like to suggest that this reading invites us to see the challenges we face in our world as beginning with ourselves, to expand our perspective to see the flaws in the world around us as a reflection of our own actions, and even more, to take tangible steps to take responsibility for them.