The Battle of God and Moses - Berakhot 32
Today’s Talmud page dives into this issue in greater depth by combining the two narratives, seeking to explain how Moses “spoke insolently” to God by disagreeing with the divine plan to start again. First, though it is couched in parables, God is held somewhat responsible for the Golden Calf. After all, says Moses, HE is the one who gave the Israelites all that gold while leaving Egypt, just like a father who makes his son attractive, gives him money, and drops him off at a whorehouse – “what could he do to avoid sinning?” Even though it is contrary to Rabbinic theology of an God with no actual body, one rabbi concedes that Moses may well have “grabbed” God, as one grabs a fellow’s clothes, to restrain Him! The Talmud’s Moses, unlike the original, turns psychology on himself – I would be a one-legged stool, and I would be ashamed before my ancestors as a leader if I got glory for myself and did not ask for mercy for my followers? Here Moses also reminds God that he swore promises by His own name to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that can’t be revoked. An odd (feminine) verbal form for ability (yekholet instead of yakhol) means the nations would accuse God of being “weak like a female” for his inabilities. And so on – different from the original stories, but intriguing dialogue nonetheless.
The Talmud page uses this story to show how effective prayer is – Moses prayed, and look what he accomplished! Today’s daf (page) goes on to elevate prayer over all other human action – prayer is greater than good deeds, fasting is better than charity (tsedakah – “righteous action), and prayer is even better than sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. But in Moses’ dialogues with God, we find that kernel of emphasis on human action we crave – hearing that God is about to destroy the Israelites, Moses says to himself, “Davar zeh talui bee – this thing depends on me.” We may not have many dialogues with God these days, and we may find good deeds and tsedakah far more effective than prayer and fasting. But for a one-sentence summary of the importance of human action, we can all say to ourselves, “this thing depends on me.” Our ancestors put that sentiment in the context of challenging God – let US use it to challenge ourselves.
Rabbi Adam Chalom
For the original Torah narratives in Exodus and Numbers, you can look in a Bible or visit etext.lib.virginia.edu/rsv.browse.html, then go to the desired book and chapter