Shabbat Parshat Bo - 5759 "Foreshadowing the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf)"
This essay is written from the perspective that Moshe Rabbeinu was "Adon Haneviim," "Master of the Prophets," who actualized his human potential to the maximum extent possible, and was thereby able to speak with G-d, in a sense, "Panim el panim," "Face to face." It also assumes that Moshe was not arguably but certainly the greatest human being who has ever lived, pending the arrival of the Mashiach, "soon and in our days."
But it is also written from the perspective that he sinned, for Kohelet teaches us that there is no human being without sin (Kohelet 7, 20). It is clear from the Torah that it was a sin, alluded to in Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar 27, 12-14), that prevented Moshe from realizing his goal of leading the Jewish People into the Land of Israel. There the Chumash cites an event which occurred in connection with "water," where Moshe failed to take advantage of an opportunity to achieve a greater Sanctification of G-d's Name.
Perhaps the reference to water, "mayim," is a veiled reference to Mitzrayim, Egypt, which because its existence is linked to the waters of the Nile River, has "mayim" built into its name, at the beginning and at the end. Or perhaps there is a reference here to the reaction of the Nation to "Kriat Yam Suf," the Splitting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds, which was "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant." The People had been raised to a high level of faith but, because of something that Moshe did, they were brought down from that level.
But to the point! What did Moshe do wrong?
In Parshat Bo, we find Moshe driving a very hard bargain with Pharaoh. After the Plague of Darkness, Pharaoh offers the freedom of the entire Jewish People, on the condition that they leave their sheep and cattle behind, on the assumption (plausible to the Egyptian mind) that the property loss would be sufficient reason to guarantee their return.
To this offer, Moshe responds unequivocally in the negative! Crucially, he adds to his refusal the following demand, for which there is no evidence of Hashem's authorization: "(Not only will we not leave any of our own cattle behind), but you will also give to us sacrifices and burnt offerings, and we will make them for Hashem, our L-rd!" (Shemot, 10,25) Moshe closes this part of the dialogue with the tragic and ironic observation, " and we do not know how we will serve the L-rd until we get there." (Shemot, 10,26)
At the end of this conversation, we see that Moshe has been losing control, to some extent, over his emotions, for the verse reads, "And he left from before Pharaoh in a fury." (Shemot 11,8) It seems that Moshe, in contradistinction to his brother, Aharon, had a problem with anger, to the extent that the loss of one's temper two or three times in one's lifetime, under conditions of extreme provocation, can be considered a "problem." Yet, "Chazal," our Sages, do say, "One who allows himself to become angry is as one who worships idols."
As with other utterances by other Jewish leaders, later to be vastly regretted, such as Yaakov's statement to Lavan that "he with whom your gods are found will not live," inadvertently dooming Rachel, and Yiphtach's statement in Shophtim that upon his victorious return from war, he would sacrifice the first creature that came forth to greet him, expecting one of his sheep to be the first, but instead it would be his daughter, Moshe may have here foretold the disaster of the "Egel HaZahav," the Golden Calf. For Pharaoh owed the Jewish People nothing more than their physical freedom; and when Moshe upped the ante, and demanded that Pharaoh provide "sacrifices and burnt offerings," he was involving the primary representative of Egyptian culture in the religious and spiritual life of Israel, which could only lead to disaster.
At the scene of the tragedy, when Aharon throws the Jewish gold into the fire, we see, according to a Midrash, the black magic of Egypt in operation, as the molten mass takes on the shape of a calf. And when Aharon tries to save the situation by proclaiming that they will celebrate before the L-rd next day, echoing Moshe's words to Pharaoh, "and we will make them for Hashem, our L-rd," it is too late, for the people "got up early in the morning and made burnt offerings and brought peace sacrifices, and they rose up to mock." (Shemot 32,6) And Rashi hears, with his unerring ear and with the Midrash, in this mocking laughter at the scene of idol worship, the other two cardinal sins, bloodshed and sexual immorality, "hallmarks" of Egyptian culture.
Perhaps Moshe had anticipated the problem early on, for when he said to Hashem, "Ve'aich yishmaeini Paroh, va'ani aral sefatayim," "How, then will the Pharaoh listen to me, seeing that I have sealed lips?" he uses the word "ve'aich." Which could have a double meaning: first of all, Pharaoh will not listen to me, and, even if he does, I will say the wrong thing, because of my temper - and this will lead to a situation which will become an "Aichah," a cause for "lamentations" for generations.
In any case, we see how important it is to be in control of our tempers, for Moshe may have lost his heart's fondest desire, to enter Eretz Yisrael, because of his inability, on that one occasion, to control his.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU