Darkness thickens. The storming clouds choke the sun’s rays from sight. Bolts of light dance within the shadowy grey. Earth and sky tremble in a shuddering roar. God’s anger rages at the sight below.
In Moses’s prolonged absence atop the mountain, the Israelite nation has faltered in their faith. Succumbing to fear, they demanded something be made for them that they could see and follow.
The people have made a golden god.
In response, God says to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now let me be that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” (Shemot 32:9-10).
But why does God feel the need to first ask Moses’s permission? Why does She not merely act in destroying the sinful people – after all, death is surely the punishment for such iniquity?
Without time to contemplate such questions, our fearless leader leaps to the defense of the wayward nation. He falls on his face, appeasing the Lord through skillfully woven and emotionally laden logic. God acquiesces, and rescinds the evil decree. Immediately, Moses turns from before God and heads down to confront the people.
I can only imagine Moses – the nation’s judge and arbiter – silently simmering in wrathful disappointment as he descends the mountain. As anyone who has some experience hiking knows, a solo mountain path provides plenty of time and space for the mind to wander its extremes. Who knows the punishments Moses’s enraged imagination concocted – proclaiming the death penalty for all involved must have crossed his mind. Yet this is the one urge he couldn’t possibly act upon. No matter how hot his anger flared, no matter how much he wanted to, no matter how much they deserved it – there is no way Moses could ordain utter destruction immediately after dissuading God from that very verdict.
Therein lies the answer to our questions. When God decrees utter destruction, She ensures that the punishment Moses pronounces avoids the capitol extreme. By forcing Moses to argue for mercy on the nation’s’ behalf, The Holy Blessed One teaches Moses a deep lesson in compassion.
If we are diligent in the mental and emotional exercise of always first defending, our minds and hearts will be trained in the ways of mercy, and grace. By doing so, we too may merit a glimpse – even if it is just The Back – of what it means to be “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and good faith, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Shemot 34:6-7).