Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Ki Tisa 5779

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Erase Me From This Book

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

In literature we spend most of our time analyzing what is there. What is included in the story? Why those details? Why did this character do that? Why these words?

One can also learn from what is not there, from that which is missing.

In a month or so we will read the Megillah and notice that God’s name is not mentioned once in the Megillah. That is certainly significant.

A month after that we will read the Hagaddah and note Moshe’s near complete absence from our retelling of the story. 

Last week we read Parshat Tetzaveh and Moshe’s name was not mentioned once.

I grew up believing that was due to a specific verse in this week’s parsha.

After the sin of the golden calf and the punishment of those directly responsible, Moshe approaches God in an attempt to have God forgive the people. He says

שמות פרק לב

לב) ועתה אם תשא חטאתם ואם אין מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת

And now if you forgive them, (great), but if not erase me from this book that you have written.

There are certain interpretations that stick in your mind because you were taught them at an early age. When you actually stop to analyze them at a later stage you realize that they are probably totally wrong while the other answers are actually much more meaningful.

I was taught that Moshe’s request of מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת refers to the Torah. Moshe tells God, if you don’t forgive the people, take me out of the Torah. God actually agrees but wants to wait until the last possible moment to take Moshe out and if you start with Ki Tisa and go thru the whole Torah you will eventually get to Tetzaveh as the last possible opportunity to do so.

I found the source in Daat Zekeinim of the Tosafot, which explain that the curse of a tzaddik must come true at some level and therefore even though Moshe was wrong in asking for it his words must take effect and thus he is removed from Tetzaveh. The only other person to quote this is Rabbeinu bechaya.

Both quote other answers and neither quotes this as the primary answer.

The only other commentator who reads “the book” as referring to the Torah is Rashi which we will see in a moment but he clearly does not believe that this has any impact on Moshe’s absence from Tetzaveh.

Leaving aside the issue of whether we believe in such a concept – that the words of a tzaddik must have effect, all of the other commentators offer better and more meaningful answers.

They do so and reject the answer of my youth for three primary reasons:

  1. Many commentators point out one fatal flaw in reading מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת as referring to the Torah. The Torah was not yet written! It doesn’t exist yet.
  2. In the next verse, after Moshe’s bold demand, God say no! לג) ויאמר יקוק אל משה מי אשר חטא לי אמחנו מספרי
    God says, I won’t do it! Those who sinned will be erased.
  3. Moshe is attempting to achieve atonement for the sinners. This explanation does not fit into that context. If you don’t forgive them get rid of me- is he trying to blackmail God?

What then does it refer to? What is the book that Moshe wants out of?

Rashbam writes that it is the book of life that we are familiar with from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you don’t forgive the people write me out of that book!

Rashbam does not explain how that helps achieve the desired atonement. For that we have to turn to Rabbeinu Bechaya who explains that Moshe thought that he could die in their place! Moshe doesn’t simply say – forgive them or kill me, rather his argument is forgive them or let me take their place, kill me instead.

The second option, the one offered by the Eben Ezra, is that the book refers metaphorically to the happenings in heaven that determine what takes place to us in this world.

Removal from that book would seem to serve the same purpose as earlier – let me take the punishment!

In a similar vein the Toldos Yitzchak suggests “erase me from the book” means erase some of my merits and give them to the people that need them!

You have to be impressed by Moshe. He is willing to die or suffer to save his people. The sentiment is admirable.

But GOD SAYS NO! לג) ויאמר יקוק אל משה מי אשר חטא לי אמחנו מספרי

Those who sin will be erased and two pesukim later the plague comes.

God says no because in Judaism it is your actions that determine your judgment. Not even Moshe can change that!

God says NO, even the greatest prophet of all time, Moses cannot die for you!

God says NO, even the greatest prophet of all time, Moses cannot give you his merits!

In a certain sense Moshe makes a similar mistake to the people. The people need this intermediary between them and God. They can’t deal directly, not at Sinai and not with the Golden calf. They want someone else to be there for them. Dealing directly with God is too much!

Moshe at some level tries to do the same thing – he offers to the place of the people just as they wanted him to “take the place of God”.

Hashem says no – that is not the way this works. The relationship is direct, and you cannot step in on their behalf to take their punishment or even die for them!

This reading not only makes more sense, it paints Moshe in a mistaken but better light and provides a critical lesson for us today.

Today, we have no desire for physical manifestations of God, we have no need for a golden calf. But people do want an intermediate between them and God. We want people to pray for us to intercede on our behalf, to suffer for us etc.

The lesson here is – that is not what God wants. God wants you, a direct relationship with you; that is the only way that it works.

NB – the question of why Moshe’s name is not in Tetzaveh has nothing to do with this verse and probably has more to do with Aaron’s role in the Mishkan, but that is for another time.