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Saying You're Sorry

By: Mrs. Neima Novetsky

Saying You're Sorry

Mrs. Neima Novetsky


How do you pray for forgiveness?


In our parshah, after the nation sins with the golden calf, Hashem tells Moshe "leave me and let my wrath rage at them and I will destroy them…"  Immediately, Moshe begins to plead on behalf of the nation, trying to convince Hashem to forgive them.  In the account of our story in Devarim, in contrast, we are not told that Moshe prayed at all while still on the mountain.  He, instead, goes down, destroys the calf and only afterwards returns to seek forgiveness.  Which account is the true one, and perhaps more importantly, what is the significance of the difference?


According to Ibn Ezra, the retelling in Devarim reflects the actual order of events. Moshe did not daven immediately upon hearing about the sin; the story in Shemot is achronological, written that way for certain literary/textual reasons.   Ramban disagrees, suggesting that actually Moshe prayed for the nation twice, once while still on the mountain and again after destroying the calf.  Devarim, being just a retelling of the event, just mentions one of the tefillot, making it sound as if it was said only at the end, while in reality Moshe really had not hesitated at all to pray.


What lies behind the disagreement?  On one level, this is simply a disagreement about the usage of the concept of "yesh/ein mukdam umeuchar baTorah".  Ibn Ezra, who has no problems saying that sometimes Torah is achronological, suggests that our story in Shemot is a case in point.  Ramban, though, who is consistently much more hesitant to say that the Torah is not written in its proper order, is wary about making that assumption here too.


The argument, though, goes much deeper. Ibn Ezra explains the rationale behind his approach.  How could Moshe possibly pray for forgiveness if the people were still doing wrong?  What a mockery that would be!!   You can’t say sorry while in the middle of doing the very deed you are supposedly sorry about doing!!  Moshe had to first go down, change the people's behavior and destroy the calf. Only then could he return to face Hashem properly and sincerely hope for forgiveness.


Ramban suggests that Moshe had a different agenda. He realized how great Hashem's wrath was and feared that if he waited to appease Him, it would be too late. There was no time to play with.  If he did not pray immediately, Hashem might have already begun to destroy the nation.


Both Ibn Ezra and Ramban have important lessons to teach.  When saying sorry and asking for forgiveness, words are not always enough. One has to show the sincerity behind them, which often means proving that one has, or one is willing to change.  Second, true leadership requires knowing when to act and when to wait.  Sometimes, you don't have the luxury of procrastinating; the time to do or to say is now.  It is often hard to ask for forgiveness and many of us push it off, but often delaying saying sorry just means that more damage is done in the meantime.


Shabbat Shalom.









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