Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Battle of God and Moses - Berakhot 32

One of my favorite episodes in the Torah actually happens twice – the first time is right after the children of Israel make the Golden Calf while Moses is with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 32, and the second is after the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan after the spies give their report in Numbers 14. In both versions, God is so angry with the Israelites that he wants to wipe them out and start over with Moses. And in both versions Moses turns the tables and uses every possible motivational maneuver – flattery (“you are powerful and merciful”), public shame (“what will the Egyptians say about you”), and an appeal to earlier loyalties and promises to their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). And God relents from the “evil” (Hebrew ra’) He considered.

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, then go to the desired book and chapter