It was an incomprehensible turn of events. Bnei Yisrael had just reached the greatest spiritual heights imaginable when an unspeakable calamity occurred, a calamity which continues to affect us to this very day: the sin of the golden egel.
While Moshe Rabbeinu was still in Shamayim the Ribbono shel Olam told him, “Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.”
Moshe Rabbeinu immediately interceded on their behalf, pleading “Why should the Egyptians say …” as well as invoking the zechus of the Avos.
After descending to earth — shattering the Luchos upon his arrival, then burning the Golden Calf — he once again returned to Hashem and spoke again on behalf of the People.
“I implore! The people have sinned a great sin. … And now, if You would but bear their sin! — but if not, erase me from Your book that You have written.”
The Ribbono shel Olam, responded, “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!”
What is the intention of the words “the book that You have written?” What was Hashem’s response?
The most common explanation is that Moshe Rabbeinu meant that his name should not appear in the Torah. Since the words of a tzaddik come true even if when conditional, even though the Bnei Yisrael were forgiven by Hashem, Moshe Rabbeinu’s name does not appear in Parashas Tetzaveh, read this past week.
(One intriguing reason why davka this parashah was chosen: In His great love for Moshe Rabbeinu, Hakadosh Baruch Hu delayed omitting his name until Parashas Tetzaveh. Since it is followed by Ki Sisa, in which this episode is recounted, it could be put off no longer …)
The Belzer Rebbe, Harav Yissachar Dov, zy”a, gives a fascinating alternative explanation.
Chazal tell of three “books” that are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one of the wicked, one of the righteous and one of the intermediate.
The righteous are inscribed in the book of life, the wicked in the book of death, R”l.
Hashem informed Moshe of His intention to annihilate Bnei Yisrael. This would mean that they had been inscribed in the book of the evildoers. Moshe Rabbeinu alone would survive, and from him would spring forth a great nation. Moshe alone was inscribed in the book of the righteous, the book of life.
Moshe Rabbeinu told Hashem that he was unwilling to be separated from his people. If Hashem would not agree to forgive them, he begged, then “erase me from Your book that You have written” — take my name out of the book of the righteous, for I wish to share the fate of my nation.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s willingness to be moser nefesh for Bnei Yisrael evoked Heavenly compassion, and the Ribbono shel Olam told him that in that case, “whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!” I will erase the names of Bnei Yisrael from the book of the wicked, and I shall inscribe them in your book — the book of the righteous, the book of the living.
There is another aspect of this episode that appears to be puzzling.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s intent was clearly to beseech Hashem to forgive Bnei Yisrael, so why did he say that the people sinned a great sin? Why magnify their error?
Writing in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust, the Piaseczna Rebbe, Hy”d, quotes his father, the Grodzisker Rebbe, zy”a. When a Yid is moser nefesh for other Yidden it is even greater than being moser nefesh for the Ribbono shel Olam. It is comparable to the being moser nefesh for the son of the king, an act that proves that one’s love for the king is so great that not only is he willing to be moser nefesh for the king himself, but even for a child of the king.
When Moshe Rabbeinu saw that Bnei Yisrael were in desperate need of Heavenly mercy so that such a grievous sin could be forgiven, he aroused within his own heart ahavas Yisrael until he was prepared to be moser nefesh for them. Not only for the righteous among them; because they were all Hashem’s children, Moshe Rabbeinu was prepared to show mesirus nefesh even for those who had committed such a terrible sin.
Despite the magnitude of their sin, either forgive them or “erase me from Your book!”
With this demonstration of mesiras nefesh and ahavas Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu evoked a tremendous outpouring of ahavah from Hakadosh Baruch Hu to Bnei Yisrael.
The enduring lesson of Moshe Rabbeinu applies in every generation. Tzaddikim teach that the road to ahavas Hashem is ahavas Yisrael. It is relatively easy to exhibit ahavas Yisrael — and even mesirus nefesh — for the righteous among us; Moshe Rabbeinu taught us the importance of being moser nefesh even for Hashem’s children who have sinned “greatly,” slipping far from the proper path.