> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

Taking the Blame

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's Torah portion describes the infamous Golden Calf. When Moses prays to God to forgive the Jewish people for this incident, he pleads, "Blot me out of Your Book" (Exodus 32:32). The implication of this statement is that Moses's erasure from the Torah would somehow atone for the Jewish people's sin. We know that Moses was the humblest man who ever lived, which makes this statement seem quite surprising. The Golden Calf was a major offense. How could Moses be so presumptuous to think that removing his name from the Torah could atone for the entire fiasco?

According to the Baal Shem Tov (9), whenever Moses saw the Jewish people behaving inappropriately, he blamed himself. He assumed that his own failings were the most probable cause of the people's misbehavior. This attitude can be understood on two levels. On a Kabbalistic level, if the leader of a generation makes even a slight mistake, it can cause a ripple effect. A leader's small error in thought, speech or action may result in the people's committing major crimes.

The Mekor Mayim Chaim (6) writes that this effect can be compared to a person holding a long piece of string, with the top end between his fingers and the bottom lying on the ground. If the person moves the top of the string even slightly, the bottom will move as well. The top of the string - the "head" - symbolizes the head of the generation. Just as the head of the string causes the bottom to move, so too does the head of the generation impact those lower down.

On a practical level, we can understand Moses's behavior as covering for the Jewish people. He took responsibility for their mistake because of his intense commitment to leading them. It is as if Moses said, "Had I been a better leader, they would have been better people." He saw their mistake as a reflection on his failure to guide them properly.

In fact, this was not the case, as we see in God's subsequent statement, "The one who really sinned to me I will blot out of My Book" (Exodus 32:33). Moses was completely guiltless in this situation. Yet we see that Moses was nevertheless prepared to cover for the people by taking the blame himself.

Now we can understand Moses's plea to be taken out of the Torah. Moses was not being presumptuous by claiming that his erasure from the Torah would atone for the people's sin; rather, he was begging, "Punish me instead of them!" A willingness to cover for other people - deflecting the accusations against them and accepting the blame ourselves - is one of the greatest ways to demonstrate love.

May we learn to love each other to the degree where we can point the accusatory finger at ourselves instead of at others. In this way, may we be able to rectify our old mistake of baseless hatred, and replace it with baseless love, that we may merit our full and final redemption.

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