After the sin of the egel, Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded with Hashem on behalf of Bnei Yisrael. “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.”
At first glance, this seems puzzling. Moshe Rabbeinu clearly intended to beseech Hashem to forgive Bnei Yisrael. One would assume he would have tried to minimize the gravity of what occurred. So why did he stress that it was a “great” sin? Furthermore, what is the meaning of the statement “Erase me from Your book”? What would this have accomplished?
In the very beginning of the parashah we learn about the commandment of bringing the machatzis hashekel. “The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from a half a shekel.” Why weren’t the wealthy permitted to give more than this sum? What does this symbolize, and what practical message can we learn from it?
This week we also learn about the 13 Attributes of Mercy that Hakadosh Baruch Hu taught Moshe Rabbeinu, including the fact that He is “nosei avon,” a forgiver of iniquity.
Chazal (Rosh Hashanah 17a, based on Michah 18:7) teach us that Hashem forgives the iniquities of those who “make themselves like remnants.” Just like scraps of leftover food are considered insignificant in people’s eyes, the humble think little of themselves, and it is such people whose sins are forgiven.
What is the connection between humility and forgiveness? The Arugas Habosem gives a profound explanation that answers all these questions.
The sole purpose of the evil inclination is to enable a person to exercise free will in choosing between right and wrong. Chazal tell us that the greater a person is, the greater is his evil inclination. Therefore, the degree to which the yetzer hara has the right to entice a person is linked to his spiritual status. If the evil inclination upsets the balance of power and crosses that line, the person no longer truly has free will. This in turn serves as a valid defense for sins committed by that individual.
Therefore, when a person conducts himself with humility and considers himself insignificant, the claim that the evil inclination overestimated his spiritual worth and went over the limit is considered a valid one, for the person is judged based on how he perceived himself. Since he considered himself insignificant, like “remnants,” Hashem forgives his iniquities.
But when a person exaggerates his own importance, this defense falls away — because relative to his own estimation of himself, he is supposed to have a very powerful evil inclination.
After the tragic saga of the egel, Moshe Rabbeinu told Hashem that “the people have sinned a great sin”; the evil inclination that caused them to sin was far greater than their spiritual level.
Furthermore, Moshe Rabbeinu argued that the evil inclination judged the nation based on the status of its leader, who was an ish Elokim. In reality, they weren’t on such a lofty level and could not counteract such a powerful yetzer hara.
Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded: “And now, if You would but bear their sin! But if not, erase me from Your book that You have written.” This is the “book” that Hashem showed Adam Harishon, listing each generation and its spiritual leader. Moshe asked that he not be considered their leader, and once Bnei Yisrael were judged solely on their own merits, it would certainly be found that the evil inclination was too powerful for them.
(Moshe Rabbeinu was the paradigm of humility. Yet he also was clearly cognizant of his own greatness. According to the teaching, when it came to saving Bnei Yisrael, he actually used his extraordinarily lofty level in his argument on their behalf.)
However, this argument that the yezter hara was just too powerful to withstand can easily be misused. Reluctant to stand up against his evil impulses, an individual may don the cloak of false modesty and declare that he is lower than the evil inclination he was given, possibly fooling himself in the process as well.
This is the lesson of the machatzis hashekel: “The wealthy shall not increase,” meaning that a person should be careful not to become conceited and overestimate his spiritual worth. But at the same time, “the destitute shall not decrease”; a person should not underestimate his worth and his ability to fight and defeat his evil inclination.