In Parashat Ki Tissa, God, who is with Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, tells him what his nation is now doing, down below in his absence: “They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said: This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:8).
Although the problem is grave, the solution that God offers Moses is more radical than what anyone could possibly imagine: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation” (Exod. 32:10). God is proposing the erasure of the first part of Israel’s journey, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis - namely, the destruction of the Children of Israel, who have proven a great disappointment, and a new start, this time with Moses as founder of a new nation.
Had God’s proposal become a reality, the lion’s share of the first two books of the Pentateuch would have become irrelevant. God chooses Abraham, bypassing Ishmael, and transfers the center of gravity to Isaac, from whom God transfers the center of gravity to Jacob, thereby removing Esau from the picture. However, from Jacob onwards, the thread of the individual choice broadens from one strand to 12, subsequently to 70 and finally to an entire nation. After Esau, no incident is recorded in the Torah of anyone being removed from this nation.
God’s proposal to “consume them” displays a destructive dimension that is once more centered on the individual. It represents a real threat that seems contrary to the ethos of the covenant between God and Israel, contradicting the promise given to the children of Jacob. Instead of establishing Moses as the representative or leader of the Children of Israel, God proposes setting him up as someone who is external to Israel, who is equivalent to Israel and is, actually, its rival. In fact, God presents Moses’ potential “weight” not only as equal to, but greater than Israel’s.
From the opening of the Book of Exodus, it is clear that Moses’ story is different from Israel’s. He grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, not with the slaves, and the conflicts he deals with are more complex, touching on issues of identity and mission, rather than the issue of survival. Although powerful emotions bond Moses to Israel’s fate, as shown in his response to seeing the Egyptian beating a Hebrew, no less powerful emotions separate Moses from Israel, as demonstrated in his refusal to accept God’s mission and save the people (Exod. 4:13).
Moses undertakes the role of Israel’s leader but never feels an integral part of that nation. Before the Golden Calf, it seems that only Moses feels a gap, while God tries to bond him to Israel. After the sin has been committed, the situation is dramatically altered and God expresses his desire to destroy Israel and choose Moses in its stead.
When is the seed of this choice planted? Quite possibly, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18). In the verse concluding the reading, it is written, “And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights” (Exod. 24:18). Concerning the words, “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud,” the disciples of the school of Rabbi Ishmael offer this interpretation in the Talmud: “The word betokh [into the midst] appears in this verse and also appears in the verse, 'and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground’ (Exod. 14:16). In the latter verse, the word betokh refers to a path, as it is written, ‘and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left’ (Exod. 14:22); similarly, in the former verse, the word refers to a path” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, p. 4b).
In Parashat Beshalach (Exod. 13:17 - 17:16), the Children of Israel enter the Red Sea, which God splits for them: “and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” The word betoch enables the exegetist to explain the physics of Moses’ entry into the cloud in the same manner as the Children of Israel’s entry into the split waters of the Red Sea is explained: God splits the cloud in two and Moses walks along the path created by the two walls of cloud. This midrash creates a formalistic connection between Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea and Moses’ ascent to the top of Mount Sinai, thereby transforming the crossing of the Red Sea from a specific historical event or a one-time literary event into a paradigm that repeats itself.
Israel emerges from Egypt as a mass of slaves and the Children of Israel are reborn, exiting from the Red Sea’s straits like an infant emerging from a womb. Moments before they cross, Moses instructs them: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today; for whereas ye have seen the Egyptians today, ye shall see them again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exod. 14:13-14). Moses invites the Children of Israel to watch God wage war on their behalf, to see God’s deeds replace their actions. This is a moment of merging: Israel and God become a single organism.
In the splitting of the Red Sea, “Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in His servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31). According to the sages, the Israelites see in the Red Sea what neither Ezekiel nor Isaiah is privileged to see; for that reason, they can actually point out God and proclaim, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” (Exod. 15:2) (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Parashat Beshalach, Massechta de Shira: 3). However, for Moses, who is accustomed to speaking with God face to face, the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, rather than their one-time moment of intimacy with God, is the climax of their exodus from Egypt.
The crossing of the Red Sea, the moment of metamorphosis when the Israelites are reborn between the sea’s straits and they merge with God to become a single entity, is equivalent to Moses’ entry into the cloud, as portrayed at the end of this week’s portion. Moses leaves behind him the nation that he has led up until now, just as he leaves behind him Pharaoh’s army; he enters the cloud, and reaches his own desert: the 40 days during which he is alone with God.
Here the seed is planted, here the connection is made - a connection whose consequences can be seen in God’s proposal in Parashat Ki Tissa, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.” In the course of the 40 days Moses spends at the top of Mount Sinai, in his private desert, an intimate connection is made that enables Moses to reply to God’s proposal with words that are no less radical: “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Exod. 32:32).