“Go, Descend” – The Goal of all Descents is Ascension
In Parsha Ki Tisa we read, “Go, descend – for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). Most commentators have asked why the verse states both “Go” and “descend” at the same time. Would a single commandment not have been sufficient for Moses? As we have seen, Rashi cites the Talmud (Berachot 32:22) and explains as follows: “Descend from your exalted position. I did not give you your high position except for their sake.”
Despite this explanation, a certain number of questions remain:
1. As the head of the prophets (Esther Rabba, Introduction 10) and the undisputed leader of the Jewish people (whose outlook and state of mind he was perfectly familiar with), Moses knew very well that they would commit the sin of the golden calf. Yet if that were the case, why did he then descend from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law in his hands? Was he unaware that they were not ready to receive them, having been completely distanced from G-d by the sin of the golden calf?
2. Why did G-d make Moses descend from the mountain (i.e., from his greatness)? If the Children of Israel sinned, what wrong had Moses done?
3. Why did Moses break the Tablets? Although it is true that afterwards G-d told him, “You did well!” (Shabbat 87a), nevertheless He had not given him the order to break them.
King David said concerning Moses: “You ascended on high, you have taken captives” (Psalms 68:19). In other words, you triumphed over all the angels by your holiness and wisdom (see Shemot Rabba 28:1). He even succeeded in studying Torah with the Holy One, blessed be He (Berachot 63b) and took hold of the Celestial Throne to respond to the angels who opposed the giving of the Torah (Shabbat 88b). As a result, when G-d informed Moses that the Children of Israel had sinned, he found it difficult to leave the delights of the spiritual world that he was in. G-d therefore had to give him an express order to descend from there: “You only belong to the world below now. Therefore descend and see what My children have done.”
However Moses was very apprehensive about this descent, for he feared the influence of the wrongdoers who had fashioned the golden calf. G-d then ordered him to descend from his greatness, for as He explained to him: “It was of your own free will – yours, not Mine – that you brought the mixed multitude out of Egypt, as it is written: ‘Your people [not ‘My people’] … has become corrupt’ [Exodus 32:7]. Therefore descend and save the Children of Israel from this mixed multitude. All the honors that you enjoy are yours only because of the Children of Israel.”
As the Talmud teaches (Makot 7b), the goal of every descent is to elevate a man. Moses had certainly made it to such sublime spiritual levels that he was unaware of the Children of Israel’s sin. However G-d objected to his stay in the celestial heights and ordered him to descend (in order to better ascend the next time).
A man experiences many trials and failures in this lower world, but he can only lift himself back up by the diligent study of Torah.
The Tzaddik who departs from this world is completely unaware of trivial matters, for he enjoys the splendor of the Shechinah in the upper realms (Berachot 17a). How can we call upon the Tzaddik’s merit with G-d so as to help us in the material realm? Let us first light candles in his memory, then ask him to have pity on us, to intercede with G-d in our behalf to help us become greater in our Torah study. It is only after doing these things that we should ask G-d (by the merit of the Tzaddik) to help us gain our sustenance, to raise our children in the path of truth and righteousness, and so on. This is because the material realm constitutes the aspect of failure, of descent, yet since its only goal is a greater ascension in the spiritual realm, the Tzaddik will have our prayers answered by calling upon G-d’s mercy in our behalf.
It is forbidden for the Tzaddik to enclose himself at home, without watching over his fellow. It is vital that others benefit from his Torah and exemplary behavior. If he fails to do so, he brings about the deterioration of his generation, as was the case with King Saul (see I Samuel 10:22). G-d tells such a Tzaddik, “Come out from your hiding place and teach the Torah to the Children of Israel.”
The verse that states, “For it is a time to act for the L-RD. They have voided your Torah” (Psalms 119:126) can be interpreted in the following way: The Tzaddik/Moses wants to act in the Name of G-d, which is to say that he wants to study Torah. It follows that his brothers find nobody to teach them mitzvot, and so they transgress them. “Go, descend,” Hashem told Moses. “It is time that you make souls for the Holy One, blessed be He. Stop studying alone. Make your fellowman benefit from your knowledge. Be assured, you will not be abstaining from studying Torah by doing so. Know that you are elevated not only by Torah study, but also – and above all – by helping the Jewish people. The Mishnah teaches to this effect: ‘Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it does not come to you through inheritance’ [Perkei Avoth 2:12]. It is not only a heritage for you, but for all the Jewish people.” Furthermore it is written, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), and “If you have learned much Torah, do not claim special credit for yourself” (Perkei Avoth 2:8), so teach it to the Children of Israel. “Go, descend – for your people … has become corrupt.” They are distancing themselves form the Torah. Therefore bring them back to it.
Thus the only goal of Moses’ descent was to elevate the souls of the Children of Israel, to bring them closer to G-d. If Moses descended from the mountain holding the two Tablets of the Law in his hands, it was in order to show them what they had lost, namely the “Tablets of the Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d” (Exodus 31:18). Even though broken, they retained all their holiness. With respect to this, the Talmud teaches: “The Tablets and the fragments of the Tablets were placed in the Holy Ark” (Bava Batra 14b), and if the Children of Israel had not committed the sin of the golden calf, the Tablets would not have been broken and Israel’s strength would have been even greater.
Despite the fact that they were broken, the Tablets were “whole” because they served to bring about a spiritual elevation. Here too we see the concept of “a descent for an ascent.” According to the Talmud, sufferings purge a man of his sins, allowing him to spiritually elevate himself (Berachot 5a). Let us not act like those who stomp upon “easy” mitzvot with their heels and are only careful about major mitzvot, who neglect the fragments of the Tablets in order to seize the whole Tablets (Tanhuma Eikev 1). Commenting on the verse that states, “Pesol lecha [Carve for yourself] two stone Tablets like the first” (Exodus 34:1), our Sages explain this to mean: “Take possession of their fragments” (Nedarim 38a). What exactly did they mean by this? That even starting from “fragments” (i.e., minor mitzvot), we may elevate ourselves. This descent can elevate and help you to elevate others. Is that not, in the final analysis, the mission incumbent upon every Jew?
It is written, “Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, far from the camp … whoever sought the L-RD would go out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). How is it possible that Moses, who was the most humble man on the face of the earth, did not strive to go and teach the Torah to the Children of Israel? Why did he wait for them to come to him? Why did he not follow the example of our Patriarch Abraham, who went throughout the land to teach G-d’s ways to all (see Rambam, Hilchot Akum 1:3)?
That was also what the prophet Samuel did, as it is written: “He would travel year after year, circling to Beth-el, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judging Israel in all these places” (I Samuel 7:16). The Midrash states, “Consider the difference between Moses and Samuel: Moses would freely go in to see the Holy One, blessed be He, whereas it was the Holy One, blessed be He, Who appeared to Samuel, as it is written: ‘The L-RD came and appeared’ [I Samuel 3:10]” (Shemot Rabba 16:4). Why this difference? It is because, as our Sages explained, Moses waited for the Children of Israel to come and be judged before him, as it is written: “Moses sat to judge the people” (Exodus 18:3), whereas Samuel traveled throughout the land to judge the people. Hashem said, “Moses will therefore present himself before Me in a regular way, but I Myself will go and see Samuel,” as it is written: “A scale and just balances are the L-RD’s” (Proverbs 16:11).
Why then did Moses not act like Samuel? It is because where we see Moses’ humility, there we also see his greatness. It was not because of laziness (G-d forbid) that he refrained from traveling to the people, but because he knew that the Shechinah was with the Children of Israel in the desert and that they lacked nothing. No enemy pursued them, and they were completely surrounded by the Cloud of Glory. Suddenly, following the sin of the golden calf, the defilement of the serpent came and took up residence within them and made them stumble spiritually, causing their Torah study to greatly diminish. If in the desert, where they had no worries, they acted in this way and ended up making a golden calf, what would happen to them when they would descend into exile and experience all sorts of difficulties?
Hence if Moses placed the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, it was to teach the Children of Israel that they must search for the Divine path rather than wait until someone comes and shows them it. In this way they would learn Torah with fervor, and in this sense it would be their efforts that would help them, as it is written: “Still, my wisdom stood with me” (Ecclesiastes 2:9) – it was the Torah that I learned in toil that supported me (Kohelet Rabba 2:12).
Nevertheless, in Samuel’s generation the situation was completely different, for at that time the Children of Israel lacked faith. The destruction of the Sanctuary at Shiloh was like that of the holy Temple. The Philistines captured the Ark of G-d (I Samuel 5:1), and so Samuel did not expect the Children of Israel to come to him. Rather, he went to the most remote villages to make them return to their Father in Heaven. If he had not acted in this way, the Jewish people would not have recovered. (Yalkut Me’am Loez, ibid.). Such is what our forefather Abraham did before him. He went to all those who denied G-d to show them the path to follow and to make His holy Name reign over them.
The people of the generation of knowledge, who witnessed so many miracles yet had nevertheless sinned, were to go to Moses, who would descend from his greatness to meet them. If he placed the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, it was in order to instill in them a love of Torah – his Torah – for which he had devoted himself entirely, as it is written: “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant” (Malachi 3:22). It was in order to lavish them with extremely sound advice. The Talmud teaches to this effect that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses: “Because you descended from your greatness, the Torah will carry your name” (Shabbat 89a). If Moses placed his tent outside the camp, it was to teach us that it is proper to seek out a place, even if it is distant, where G-d’s laws are taught (Perkei Avoth 4:18). It teaches us to establish yeshivot outside a city and its commotion in order that we may better concentrate in our Torah study and come even closer to G-d.
May we have the merit to study Torah in tranquility and to elevate ourselves to lofty spiritual levels. This is what our Father in Heaven seeks, and it is the very goal of Jews in this world. Amen.