Moshe Rabbenu teaches loving-kindness

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

Parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35) includes Hashem’s revelation of his glory to Moses, the thirteen attributes of God, opening with the words, “Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, full of chesed v’emet—loving-kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6). Earlier, in the Ten Words, Hashem had declared that he would show chesed to “thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Chesed is an aspect of God’s character, an aspect that gets sorely tested in this parasha, when Israel builds the Golden Calf. But this same story also reveals the possibilities of chesed on a human level in the example of Moses.

Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God, “They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,” as Scripture tells us: “Now if you will forgive their sin . . . then forgive mine as well. But if you do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of your book that you have written’”[32:32]. (S’fat Emet)

Jewish tradition speaks of Moshe rabbenu—Moses our teacher. He not only brought the very words of God down from Mount Sinai, but he also lived those words himself, and became an example to us all. In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses must answer a question that we all will have to answer as well: Will we live for ourselves or others? Will we be content to seek a personal relationship with God, or will we look beyond this relationship, precious as it is, to serve those who may lack it?

In building the Golden Calf, the Israelites break the first two commandments, which forbid both the worship of any other god, and the building of an idol. It’s a catastrophic failure, but not irreversible. The idolaters are punished, but the people as a whole are spared. In the end, the Lord promises to continue to accompany them in their journeys: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14).

What is the turning point in this story? How can the people be restored after the disaster of the Golden Calf? This is where Moses makes all the difference, and becomes an example to us. Instead of distancing himself from Israel because of their sin, he continue to identify with his people despite their sin. The Midrash even pictures him sinning through breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments, to put himself into the same situation as the rest of Israel. Now, he who has communed with God face-to-face can plead on behalf of the whole people, as one of them.

Moses’ decision to remain with his people, even at his own expense, is a picture of the covenant faithfulness, the unqualified loving-kindness, captured in the word chesed. It’s also a picture of true spiritual practice, which is particularly relevant in our narcissistic day of designer spirituality. Will we practice chesed and give ourselves to serve others, or develop a religious movement designed for our own comfort and self-fulfillment? Messiah himself is the model of such chesed, of course. He is the one “who did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

When Moses persisted in pleading not for himself, but for all Israel, God rewarded both Israel and him: “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:17). We may find the same to be true in our lives, as we focus not on ourselves, but on God and his people.


(Adapted from Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses, by Russ Resnik. Lederer Books, 2006.)

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