Moses As Prophetic Psychologist

Ki Tissa By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Feb 12, 2014 / 5774

The notorious centerpiece of Parashat Ki Tissa is the episode of the Golden Calf. The Israelites, at the base of Mount Sinai, grow impatient, imagining the worst vis-à-vis Moses’s fate. They turn to his brother Aaron and demand, “Come, make us a god who will go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him” (Exod. 32:1). Aaron collects gold rings, wantonly creates a molten calf, and declares a “festival” of burnt offerings to the Lord. Upon hearing the commotion from the Israelite camp, God commands his servant to return to the people. In a fierce moment of Divine anger, God verbally disowns the Israelites, turning to Moses and calling them “your people.” Indeed, God vows to destroy them. Moses, however, rises to the occasion to masterfully intercede on behalf of the people. Rhetoric wins the day as Moses declares, “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth’” (Exod. 32:12). How may we understand and learn from this Mosaic appeal to Divine pride?

Samson Raphael Hirsch explains in Moses’s voice:

According to Your own words, Pharaoh and Egypt were to learn that there is a personal, absolutely free God, who, as Lord and Master, directs the world with almighty power in justice and in love. God recognizes even the most despised and mishandled slave as God’s child . . . Why then should You now wish to reverse the intended effect of Your redemption to the very opposite by the destruction of those whom You have redeemed? Instead of teaching them to know better, it would only strengthen the Egyptians in their fallacy of denying the directing power of a just and loving merciful God . . . In the ignominious fall of their previous slaves, they will see an extenuating confirmation of their own treatment of a human race, which was evidently worth no better fate. In the exodus, they would see not the liberating work of an Almighty God but the malicious work of a Providence enticing people to their ruin. (Commentary on Exodus, 614–615)

Hirsch underscores Moses sacred role as prophetic psychologist. Moses knows well he must serve as both a messenger of God and as advocate of the people. He must learn to play both sides and both roles effectively. In the absence of such juggling, he will surely fail as prophet and as leader. More than that, he has mastered the art of appealing to Divine emotion. To destroy the people now would essentially vindicate the Egyptians; it would vindicate these taskmasters, and embolden the institution of slavery. Hirsch succeeds in filling out the compelling argument employed by Moses. God, at the prodding of Moses, needs to learn patience with this newly freed people. The slave mentality will eventually give way to a mature and enlightened freedom, but it will take time. Moses learns this well as the people’s earthly leader; and God, as their heavenly guide, must also take this lesson to heart. Truly, Moses’s empathy of God and profound ability to be a sounding board for Divine emotion saves the day.


The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.