Parshat Ki Tisa: The Leader and the People – One Complete Whole
Rabbanit Batya and Rabbi Uriel Zaretsky are former Straus-Amiel shlichim to Warsaw, where they served as Rabbi and Rabbanit of the Jewish Community, and Rabbi Uriel was the Deputy to the Chief Rabbi of Poland
During the time we served as shlichim in Warsaw, many people approached us with numerous questions and requests. In one unique instance, an Israeli living in Poland turned to us for help, asking us to assist him in giving a get (Jewish divorce document) to his wife who was living in Israel. We didn’t understand why he was reaching out to us rather than turning to the Rabbinical Courts in Israel. After making a few inquiries, we realized that our assistance was, in fact, needed and following some trials and tribulations the get was finally sent to the wife with a messenger, thank God.
What is the role of the emissary working in the Jewish Diaspora? To help Jews in whatever it is that they may need. If one wishes to learn from an exemplary shaliach, it would be best to delve deeper into the character of Moshe, as the latter is depicted in this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa.
Moshe Rabeinu, the loyal shepherd, after a relatively short time in his new role, has to face one of his most challenging moments as a leader: the Sin of the Golden Calf. Like a bride who engages in adultery under her own wedding canopy, the Children of Israel turn astray and worship the calf at the foot of Mt Sinai. Following the transgression, Moshe turns to God and begs that He forgive the People of Israel. The Psikta Zutrata (also known as Midrash Lekach Tov) describes Moshe’s great devotion to the People and how he was given an eternal reward for his behavior:
“We learn from this that he [Moshe] gave his life for the People of Israel, and, in turn, the People were named after him, [as is written in Yeshayahu 63:11] – ‘Then His people remembered the days of old, the days of Moshe, asking where is He that brought them out of the sea.'”
One of the verses in the portion that best illustrates Moshe’s devotion is the following:
“Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin, and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written” (Shemot 32:32).
Moshe pleads to Hashem to forgive the People and goes on to say that should God not harken to his request – let Him blot Moshe from His book.
To which book is Moshe referring?
One possibility is mentioned by the Gemara in the tractate of Rosh Hashana (16:2). Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak explains as follows: “‘Out of Thy Book’ – this is the book of the righteous; ‘which Thou hast written’ – this is the book of those who are neither righteous nor wicked [beinoniyim].” It appears that Moshe is willing to be blotted out of the Book of Life if God decides not to forgive the People of Israel. In fact, he is willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his flock, as is written quite explicitly in the portion of Be’ha’alotcha (Bamidbar 11:15): “And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me outright, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.”
In the exegesis named Hadar Zekenim another explanation is given for the words of Moshe, which are seemingly very difficult to comprehend. According to the punctuation suggested by the Hebrew cantillation [ta’amei haMikra], one must separate the words “blot me out, I pray Thee” from the words “from Thy book”. Above the words na [“I pray Thee”] there is a zakef katon [a punctuation mark denoting a pause]; and above the word misifrecha [“Thy book”] there is a tipcha, which connects it, in this case, to the words that follow it – asher katavta [“which Thou hast written”].
Hence, Moshe’s words – “blot me out, I pray thee” – mean to say: “Punish me alone, and not all of the People of Israel.” As to the words “From Thy book which Thou hast written” – these express, “From Thy own book I shall prove to you that they do not deserve to be punished. After all, in the Ten Commandments the Divine instruction was ‘Do not make for yourself an idol’ [in the singular form] and not ‘Do not make for yourselves’ in the plural form.”
Another possible explanation appears in Rashi (on Shemot 32:32): “From Thy book – from the entire Torah, so that they will not say against me that I was not worthy and thus unable to plead for them.” In other words, Moshe asks God to forgive the People of Israel, and goes on to say that should God refuse, he [Moshe] does not wish to be mentioned in the Torah at all. Moshe begs for mercy for his flock, beseeching God to forgive them. God responds as follows: “Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.” Still and all, Moshe’s name is not mentioned in the entire portion of Tetzaveh, the reason being that “the curse of the wise, even if uttered on condition, comes to pass” (tractate Makot 11:1).
The Sefat Emet (1877) gives a different perspective on Moshe’s devotion to the People of Israel, as expressed in his plea to God following the People’s Sin of the Calf. He explains the events according to the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot Rabbah 46:1):
“‘And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the Lord your God’ – he [Moshe] saw that the People of Israel had nothing to say in their defense, and so he threw his own lot with theirs and broke the Tablets and said to God: Behold they have sinned and I, too, have sinned for breaking the Tablets. If You forgive them, forgive me as well. As is written “if Thou wilt forgive their sin” – then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, then don’t forgive me either and “blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written.”
The Midrash offers an entirely new perspective on Moshe’s breaking the Tablets: He did not do so because he was angry at the People for having sinned nor did he do so because he was disappointed by their actions; rather – he broke the Tablets so that he would be able to defend the People of Israel! In other words, in an act of great courage and daring, Moshe decides of his own accord to break the Tablets made by God Himself.
Let us try to imagine the Chief Rabbi throwing a Sefer Torah on the floor in front of a large public… unfathomable! What Moshe did was far more difficult and severe.
Hence, Moshe, too, needed atonement for his action, and therefore pleads for both the People and for himself in the same breath. Both he and them are in the same boat, as it were. God, in turn, offers Moshe to eradicate all but him and make him into a great nation – in other words, God wishes to separate between Moshe and the People. However, Moshe’s reply is: I and the People are one whole. We cannot be severed.
The Sefat Emet writes that the Midrash Tanhuma on the portion of Ekev seems to give yet another reason for Moshe’s breaking the Tablets: He broke them because he saw the letters flying upwards and leaving the Tablets. He took this as a sign that the Tablets had lost their sanctity.
If this be so, how can we say that Moshe broke the Tablets in order to sin along with the People of Israel as explained by the Midrash?! The Sefat Emet goes on to explain that Moshe Rabeinu was a Tzaddik Gamur, a righteous person without any fault, and did not sin at all. As such, had he wanted to, he could have continued to hold onto the Torah, adopt it as a way of life, as was God’s will, and God, in turn, would have made him into a great nation.
And yet, Moshe did not wish to cut himself off from the People of Israel, and threw his own lot with theirs by breaking the Tablets and sinning as well. He did this because the People of Israel were dearer to him than the Tablets. Moreover, he knew that the People of Israel were more dear to God than anything else. The Sefat Emet writes that the biggest rectification [tikkun] for the People of Israel was the fact that Moshe tied himself to them. Indeed, the People of Israel had sinned when Moshe was up on the mountain; however, the minute Moshe linked himself to the People, the latter turned into a new entity: a new and complete whole. Hence, the People of Israel in its complete form – the nation plus Moshe – did not sin. Consequently, they were able to achieve rectification and merit God’s forgiveness.
May we too merit to be loyal shlichim who devote ourselves completely to the Jewish People.
 A collection of commentary on the Torah by the Ba’alei Hatosafot; compiler unknown. Livorno (1840).
The Jewish community of Warsaw is a unique one, comprising about 800 members, some of whom are descendants of Holocaust survivors, while others are Zera Yisrael (blood descendants of Jews, but not Jews according to halakha), who ultimately converted and became observant Jews. The community has also forged ties with Israelis living in Warsaw. There are many more Jews living in Warsaw than those who are official members of the community, and it is the emissaries’ job to make contact with as many Jews living in the city as possible and bring them closer to Jewish tradition.