What Motivated Moshe?

Shulamit Lew

This week, the Parashah recounts to us the story of the golden calf.

A less widely known part of this story is that even before Moshe descends har Sinai, Hashem tells him that Bnei Yisrael are participating in avodah zara.  At that point, whilst still on Har Sinai, Moshe davens to Hashem and successfully appeases Him.

As we all know, what happens next is that Moshe descends the mountain and breaks the luchot, upon seeing Bnei Yisrael with the Golden Calf.  But this begs the simple question; if Moshe had already been told Bnei Yisrael were worshipping the golden calf, surely he would have known he would break the luchot upon seeing Bnei Yisrael, so why did he bother to take them down in the first place?

One approach taken is that Moshe intended to break the luchot in front of Bnei Yisrael to show them what they’d lost in demonstrating their lack of emunah.

A second approach taken is that Moshe never intended breaking the luchot.  Rather, as he approached Bnei Yisrael and saw the golden calf he became angry and threw them down.  But what changed?  He already knew directly from his conversation with Hashem that Bnei Yisrael had built the calf?  Why the sudden surge in anger?

The Sforno suggests that Moshe saw something which Hashem had not told him about, “Vayar et ha’egel um’cholot”, he saw the golden calf and the dancing, the rejoicing, the celebrations.  R’ Shimshon Refael Hersh elaborates on this.  Initially, Moshe assumed Bnei Yisrael had made an intellectual mistake in miscalculating the date of Moshe’s descent.  Had that been the case, Moshe would simply have been able to explain the misunderstanding in order to rectify their mistake.  But the presence of jubilant dancing indicated that the Bnei Yisrael’s sin was far more deeply rooted than that of a misunderstanding, and rather, they were emotionally attached to the idol worship.  Therefore Moshe’s only option was to smash the luchot as the Bnei Yisrael needed to entirely uproot their emotional connection to avodah zara and start again from the beginning.

Having just come off the back of Purim, it is essential that in our moments of rejoicing and jubilation, we consider what is causing us to dance?  Are we dancing in celebration of our closeness to Hashem or in celebration of our mundane pursuits?

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