Understanding a Son’s Sin (Ki Tisa)
Every man is an omnibus in which his ancestors ride. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
This week’s Torah reading contains the famous episode of the Golden Calf. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. After forty days and nights, the people of Israel became anxious, and feeling leaderless, demanded of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that he make an idol for them. Aaron grudgingly does so.
The next morning the people of Israel worship the Golden Calf. They do this at the foot of Mount Sinai, forty days after having heard the voice of God, three months after having been miraculously liberated from Egypt. God is understandably furious (whatever that means theologically). God is ready to destroy the nation of Israel. He informs Moses of his plan to wipe out all of Israel and start over again with Moses as the Patriarch of a new nation that would ostensibly remain loyal and steadfast in their devotion to God.
This is where Moses steps in. He prays to God. His prayer is so strong, so sharp, so convincing, that he somehow gets God to stay His wrath. (Parts of his prayer are used in our liturgies to this day).
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:8 digs a little deeper and wonders as to what gave Moses the insight, the clarity and the wisdom to articulate such an effective prayer and thereby save the entire nation of Israel.
He answers based on the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) which says that Moses prayed until he felt “fire in his bones.” The Meshech Chochma details that the reference to “fire in his bones” is that Moses prayed to God for forgiveness for Israel about the Golden Calf until he felt in his bones that he also had the same fault. Only when Moses reached that point of understanding and identification with the sin of Israel, was he able to achieve forgiveness for Israel.
What aspect of the sin was in Moses’ “bones?” The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 31a) states that a characteristic that a father bequeaths to his son is his bones. The Midrash based on the Book of Judges tells us that Moses’ grandson Yehonatan was guilty of worshipping idols. That gave Moses the opening to say to God: “God, you want to make a new nation from me? In my family, I will also have this fault of idol worship.”
So Moses’ understanding and identification with his future grandson’s idolatry somehow saved the nation of Israel from being punished for that same crime.
May we identify with our progeny, and they with us.
To all those in quarantine.