Parshat Ki Tisa

Ultimatum

In the wake of the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe fiercely negotiates with God on behalf of the People of Israel. At first God tells Moshe of his plan to give up on the People of Israel and start afresh with Moshe’s progeny: “I will make you into a great nation.” The debate continues:

Moshe returned to God and said, “Please, this People sinned a great sin and made for themselves a god of gold. Now, if you please, bear their sin; and if not erase me from Your book that You have written.” And God said to Moshe, “Whoever has sinned against Me I will erase from My book. Now, go and lead the People to where I have spoken to you, and behold My angel will go before you; and on the day I make My account I will account for their sin upon them.” (Shmot 32, 31-34)

In these verses Moshe presents God with an ultimatum: either forgive the people for the Sin of the Golden Calf or “erase me from your book.” God does not accept either of these options, and instead answers, “Whoever has sinned against Me I will erase… and on the day I make My account I will account…” What is going on in this conversation? What two sides are described here?

It is clear that God and Moshe are engaged in some sort of negotiation here. To better understand what is happening we can look to the field of conflict resolution and mediation which identifies different ways that people approach negotiations. Each approach presents us with a different point of view to help us understand what is happening.

One approach sees all negotiations as a struggle. Two sides stand in opposition, each one wants to give as little as possible and take as much as possible. From this point of view both sides lose, both sides are forced to pay a price they have no desire to pay.

There are a number of commentaries that take this approach. Rambam, for example, explained that Moshe saw that God wanted to destroy the People of Israel, and therefore proposed two options- either You don’t wipe them out, or, if You do, include me in the destruction. Because Moshe refused to cooperate with God’s plan, God is unable to fulfill His desire to destroy Israel and start anew with Moshe. God could decide to wipe them all out and remain alone, or He could maintain the status quo. It’s as if Moshe leaves God with no other choice. He cannot have His way. According to this commentary God’s answers Moshe’s stubborn response with His own- “Whoever has sinned against Me I will erase.” God does not give into Moshe and further entrenches Himself in His position.

Another school of thought believes that negotiations are a form of cooperation. Both sides have a mutual interest- one person wants to buy, the other wants to sell. The first step of negotiation is to pinpoint what each side is unwilling to compromise on. After locating these principles the next step is to find a common ground, an outcome that leaves both sides happy.

This approach to negotiations can be found in Ramban’s interpretation. Ramban explained that Moshe understood that God wanted to punish the people for this grave sin. Furthermore, Moshe identified with God’s position- sin comes at a price and there is an outstanding debt that must be paid. As Moshe states in the beginning of their dialogue, “This people have sinned a great sin.”

Therefore, as Ramban explains, Moshes proposes an alternative based on this premise. He suggests that he should be destroyed instead of the people. Since the price must be paid and a sacrifice must be made, Moshe volunteers himself: “If not then erase me in their stead from the Book of Life, and I will suffer their punishment.” (Ramban, ibid) From this point of view God’s response to Moshe is not stubborn intransigence; rather since both sides want to arrive at a appropriate punishment for this grievous sin God counters Moshe’s proposal with a third suggestion. God will not destroy the entire people, only those who sinned directly will be punished. This proposition fulfills the desires of both sides- God will exact punishment, but the people will not be wiped out, and Moshe gets to live.

Similarly, Ibn Ezra explains: “I will kill only those who sinned, and not the entire nation.” (Ibn Ezra, v. 33) Since each side clearly defined what they wanted it was easier to focus on their common needs and arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement.

This approach to negotiations can also be found in the interpretation of the Hadar Zekeinim. Moshe confronts God with a question: how could He forgive Moshe for breaking the tablets if He can’t forgive the Children of Israel?  In this case Moshe found a different principle they agreed upon- while justice must be served there can be no favoritism in God’s judgment. So Moshe explains to God that if He cannot find a way to reconcile with the people He will also have to punish Moshe severely and erase him from His book. Since both God and Moshe want to find a fair solution and protect Moshe they have to find a resolution that takes both these interests into account.

The final school of thought believes that in every negotiation there are subconscious forces at play- biases and objectives that at first glance don’t appear at all connected to the topic under discussion. A good example of the subconscious undertones that influence every interaction can be found in a well-known O. Henry story about a poor couple whose only assets came down to a gold watch that belonged to the husband and the wife’s long, luscious hair. For their anniversary the husband sold his watch to buy his wife a gold comb while the wife sold her beautiful hair to buy her husband a watch chain. They each bought each other a gift they no longer had any use for.

Most people react to this story in one of two ways. Some feel the shared pain of this couple, the frustration of these two people who gave up their most prized possession for something that turned out to be useless. Yet others read this story and see tremendous happiness. Their self-sacrificing acts of devotion were the ultimate portrayal of the enormity of their love for one another. And this clear expression of love and devotion is a much greater gift than the most beautiful comb or watch chain in the world could ever be. And so it seems that beyond the stated objectives of the negotiation there are often secondary, unexpected gains. Sometimes the identification of these subconscious desires can provide the best solution.

If we look again at the interaction between Moshe and God we find that there is an additional issue at stake. In the background of the debate whether the Children of Israel will be destroyed or not, and whether or not it is possible to change the decree or annul it, there is Moshe. And Moshe is terrified. Rashbam explains:

If not then erase me from Your book that You wrote: from this book [the Torah]- so my name will not be mentioned in it; because I already told them in your name in Egypt that You would bring them to the land… (Rashbam, ibid.)

When Moshe insists that if Israel is destroyed his name must also be erased his insistence reveals a simple truth- such an abysmal end would be an incredible embarrassment for him. How could he look himself in the mirror if it turned out that all the miracles and wonders performed in Egypt concluded in a collective punishment, a tragic death after only a few months? But this underlying problem does not only affect Moshe’s good name for, as Rashbam reminds us, he ““already told them in Your name-” God’s reputation and His faithfulness is also dependent on the outcome of these negotiations. So while justice must be served, such an outcome could damage the greater aim of God’s revelation in this world.

In response to this argument God answers that the sin cannot be forgiven, but the punishment will be put off until “the day I make My account, then I will account…” The People of Israel will not all be punished, and the punishment will not be immediate. This outcome saves both Moshe from embarrassment and God’s name from desecration (chillul Hashem):

I will do what I told you for your honor, but I will not bear their sin- “for on the day I make My account I will account for their sin upon them,” I will account for it after they enter the land. And this [statement] alludes to the time when they will be exiled from it, or to what our Rabbis said (T.B. Sanhedrin 102a), “There is no tragedy that does not have a bit of the sin of the [Golden] Calf.” (Ramban, ibid; for a similar idea see the Kli Yakar)

This explanation is consistent with the many iterations of the word “v’ata,” “and now,” scattered throughout the dialogue, which clearly reflects the sense of immediacy surrounding these negotiations. Yet we find that at times the pain on both sides can be alleviated by delaying the consequences and objectives.

The Ba’al Shem Tov illuminates another issue that lays at the very heart of this dialogue. He explains that Moshe understands that a Tzaddik is not in the same position as other individuals for he bears the burden of the generation. In a way he is also responsible for the generation, along with their successes and failures. Moshe puts his head on the chopping block because he feels guilty; he believes that the people’s sin reflects his own personal failures as a leader. And so God responds and tells him, “go and lead the people.” You are the leader and they are the ones that sinned. Even God is not willing to the pay the heavy price of a failure in leadership.

This third point of view leads us to a comforting realization. It helps us understand how critical it is for God and the People of Israel to cooperate and work together, for “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is mine.” But above all, it reminds us that we are tied together by a shared destiny.

Negotiations and conflict resolutions are not limited to the political arena; they are a part of so many of our interactions. And they also exist in the religious world. They are present in our prayers and our requests. And so we need to look into ourselves- are we engaged in a power struggle that attempts to bend the will of the heavens to our own wishes? Are we engaged in an act of appeasement? Or are we trying to find the good in ourselves, the part that God desires, so we can work together towards a common goal?

Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778