The Curse of the Wise Comes True
Rabbi Moshe Barbanel and Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Exodus 32:32, “And now, lift their sin, and if not, erase me please from Your book that You wrote.” (“Book” referring to the Torah)
Moses says this to God, attempting to obtain a pardon for the Jews’ Golden Calf sin. God responds to Moses, “Those who sinned against Me, I will erase from My book.” Is God disagreeing with Moses? It would appear that He is.
The Elders of Tosafos (Talmudic commentators) said that Moses made a bargain of sorts: “If you forgive me for breaking your tablets, forgive them, for You are not one who is biased in judgment’. God responds: ‘Whoever sinned against Me will I erase. They caused you to sin Moses, and the sin of the Tablets is theirs (not yours). You acted properly, as they were not fit to receive the Tablets.’ Nonetheless, Moses’ name was erased from the entire Parsha of Tetzaveh, for [the name] ‘Moses’ is not found there. This was done because ‘the curse of the wise comes true, even if made on a condition’.”
Of course, we need to understand Moses’ equation between his breaking the Ten Commandments, and the Jews’ Golden Calf sin. But let us address the main idea: “The curse of the wise comes true, even if made on a condition.” Moses cursed himself, in suggesting his name be erased from the Torah if the Jews would not be forgiven. However, God seems to suggest that He will not uphold Moses’ wish of erasure, as he says, “the sin was the Jews’ as they caused you to sin Moses.” Our obvious question is, if that is so, and God says Moses did not sin, why then does God erase Moses name from the Torah, albeit the single Parsha of Tetzaveh?
God says this, “He who sins will I erase”, and God did in fact erase Moses’ name. How do we understand God’s contradictory words: on the one hand He indemnifies Moses, saying the Jews caused him to break the Tablets. On the other hand, He erases Moses’ name from Parshas Tetzaveh! I see only one possible answer: Moses’ name deserved erasure. I do not mean that Moses sinned; there may be another reason why his name must be obscured. I will elaborate shortly. For now, let us line up the questions:
1) What is meant by, “The curse of the wise comes true, even if made on a condition”?
2) Why was Moses’ name erased from Tetzaveh, as opposed to nay other Parsha?
3) Is it due to it coming immediately prior to the Parsha containing the Golden Calf?
4) What was Moses’ sin?
5) How does erasing his name address the issue?
Hold on to these questions. Let us further investigate our principle.
King David’s Curse
The Talmud cites another case where we apply an almost identical principle, “The curse of the wise comes true, even if made for free.” (Here it is made for “free”, while Moses’ curse was made “conditionally.”) Talmud Makkos 11a records the episode when King David was digging out the Temple’s foundation, the sea threatened to flood the Earth: a metaphor. King David inquired if it was permissible to write God’s name on a chard to be tossed into the sea, so as to contain it. None answered him. He cursed with the threat of suffocation anyone who knew an answer and remained silent. Achitophel then considered that since God’s name may be erased from the Sotah’s document to create marital harmony, certainly it could be erased in this case to save the world, and he instructed the King accordingly. King David did so, and all was saved. Nonetheless, later, when Achitophel saw his counsel to Avshalom was disregarded, he hung himself, dying precisely in line with King David’s curse of suffocation (Samuel II, 17:23). The Talmud teaches that although Achitophel heeded King David’s threat, nonetheless, Achitophel seemingly died by the very curse of the king. We thereby support, “The curse of the wise comes true, even if made for free.” But what is this justice?
We must be careful. We have a tendency to evaluate a Talmudic portion, or any part of Torah, based on the first notion we imagine. We may think that King David possessed the ability to curse. After all, he was a king, and it appears on face value that his “curse” came true. But this is a superficial and false view of a curse, which is merely the opposite of a blessing. No man has the ability to alter nature or someone else’s free will or fate, merely by uttering words, as with a curse or a blessing. It is the misunderstanding of stories like these, which spreads fallacy.
Let us approach this Talmudic portion, as would a scholar. King David was human. He possessed no greater capabilities than any other person. So how may I understand that his “curse came true”? Look at all the facts in the story…one stands out. Achitophel did not readily assist the king, not until King David made a threat. Why would Achitophel remain silent at first? It must be based on some reluctance to assist the king. We see later on as well, Achitophel counseled Avshalom, King David’s son, on how to successfully rebel against his father the king. A picture begins to emerge: Achitophel harbored some animosity towards King David, and this explains why he counseled the King’s son on how to succeed over King David. David’s need to threaten Achitophel shows Achitophel in the same light – displaying Achitophel’s animosity in the form of silence.
So let us explain the phenomenon: King David has no powers, yet Achitophel does in fact die the way the King cursed. How did this happen? The answer is, “observation.” What do I mean? King David “observed” a negative trait in Achitophel. His “curse” that anyone who withholds information die, means that the king was pointing out that Achitophel possessed some negative trait, deserving of punishment. Again, all King David did, was “observe and identify a flaw” – what we mean by a “curse”. But the king’s words cannot cause Achitophel’s death. We even see that Achitophel hung himself! It was not David! So why does the Talmud attribute it to King David? The Talmud is merely agreeing with the king. When it says, “The curse of the wise comes true, even if made for free” it teaches that when the “wise” say something, they are observing reality accurately. This is why the Talmudic principle only applies to the “wise”. What they say – be it a curse or a blessing – is in fact an accurate observation, but it is not causative. Thus, King David observed that Achitophel possessed a flaw, which he knew would cause him his own downfall. King David did not ‘cause’ Achitophel’s death; Achitophel hung himself. But his death is euphemistically ascribed to the king, as if to say the king was right.
King David said whomever remains “silent” will suffocate. Why suffocation”? It makes sense. Achitophel sinned by his mouth (throat) and King David knew that this type of life must cause his downfall. King David knew that a counselor (Achitophel) whose tools are his throat and mouth, and who is also deviant, would eventually, when using his mouth, suffer by it. (Anyone who is deviant who also functions in a specific capacity the majority of the time, will find his end connected with that function.) King David may have assumed that Achitophel was too wise not to know this himself, and upon his own self-realization that he erred with his mouth, would kill himself in connection with it through hanging himself. Perhaps Achitophel suffered from a certain amount of guilt regarding using his counseling abilities for evil, to destroy King David. Perhaps his animosity towards the king was because of his role as king – a coveted position to say the least. Radak states that Achitophel hung himself because he knew Avshalom would not succeed without his advice. Thereby, the king would discover Achitophel as a rebel, and would seek to kill him. Achitophel therefore saw the writing on the wall and preempted the king’s decree. We conclude that King David’s curse was merely an observation of what was probably inevitable. He knew that Achitophel’s deviance used in counseling would bring him to his death. There is no causal relationship between man’s words, and reality.
Now, how does this apply to our case of Moses and the Jews? Moses too cannot cause a change in nature or people, simply by uttering words. God alone controls the very natural laws exclusively under His guidance. God’s laws were fixed before Moses or any prophet entered the world’s stage, so how can they change what God already completed? They cannot! However, we are forced to reconcile God’s statement that the Jews sinned, and the fact that God did in fact erase Moses’ name, which appears to be a fulfillment of “Whomever sinned against Me I will erase.” Moses’ name required erasure…but why?
In Exodus 32:1, the people first demand to create a god (Golden Calf), as “Moses the man” who took us out of Egypt is gone. Moses…the “MAN”? Why the extra word? Of course he is a “man”. But the Torah is offering a spotlight on the issue…and a direction to the answer. The Torah is pointing out the precise flaw: the people were overly attached to Moses, the “man”. What does this mean? Look at what they did: they created a very physical, Golden Calf. Meaning, they became so attached to Moses’ presence, they could not tolerate his absence for even a few hours longer than his scheduled descent from Sinai. They panicked, and immediately desired some physical icon to act as their head.
Perhaps Moses felt in some way, that he contributed to their Golden Calf sin. Perhaps he was not clear on his words about his return; or maybe something else led them to such an act. We even learn that it was through Moses’ prayer – a change in himself – that God pardoned the Jews. Meaning, the fate of the Jews was bound to Moses’ level of perfection. Evidently, Moses too realized his flaw. He asked specifically to be “erased”, because he did not wish his flaw to act as a stumbling block for future generations. A righteous person, concerned with the welfare of future generations may use this logic so that his sins are not recorded. This explains Moses’ specific request of “erasure”. God replies, “Whomever sinned against Me, will I erase.” It would seem that God agrees; Moses name had to be erased. God complied and erased Moses’ name in one Parsha.
There may be another understanding. Perhaps the dialogue went as follows: “God, if you do not forgive the Jews, please erase my name so I do not act as a stumbling block to future generations.” God replies, “Moses, I do not erase someone simply because they wish to shield others. That is not why I will erase someone. I erase someone who “sins against Me”. It is for this type of sin alone that I erase someone.”
Now that God erased Moses’ name, we are taught that Moses sinned “against God” somehow. But a “sin” here does not mean a violation of some law, but that Moses – without guilt – was somehow connected to an error of the “people”. God said, “The people caused you to break the Tablets”. God thereby indemnified Moses of breaking the Tablets, but not of some other matter. If we are careful with our reading, we do see that God adds two unnecessary words…”whomever sins AGAINST ME…” This teaches an entirely new idea: God will erase someone who not only sins, but sins “against Him”. Perhaps this means that if a man becomes too central, he is sinning against God…he “obscures God”. We see the people had an attachment to Moses, to the point, that they could not tolerate his absence for a few hours. And God’s response is perfect: He obscured Moses. When God says “I will erase he who sins against Me”, God means to say that He will remove from the Torah, that person who sins against God, he being one whose actions counter the focus of God. Perhaps, somehow Moses’ existence obscured the Jews’ focus from God, onto himself. But not that Moses did so himself. It may have been the Jews’ overestimation of his persona. It seems this is so, as they could not be without Moses for too long. But this does not mean it was the fault of Moses. God’s use of the word “sin” may simply indicate Moses’ somehow contributed to a negative state in the Jews. Similarly, Moses’ grave was hidden from the Jews, so they could not outlet this sinful emotion after Moses dies.
We can resolve the contradiction found in the Elders of Tosafos: God indemnifies Moses of the Golden Calf sin. Yet, God erases Moses’ name from one section, teaching that Moses somehow obscured God from the focus of the Jews, and therefore, the only remedy is to obscure Moses, allowing God to reemerge in “full view”. This explains God’s description of Moses as he who “sins against Me”. But I do not mean a violation deserving of any punishment. Thus, Moses own self-curse took hold, as he was correct that one who “sins” must in some way not harm future generations. So inasmuch as God erased Moses’ name, He shielded future generations, as was Moses’ wish. So Moses’ curse, “even for free” (he really did not sin with the Calf) still took hold, and he was erased. Thus, erasure of Moses’ name is the correction required, as “name” represents one’s ‘identity’, and it was Moses’ very identity, which obscured God’s.
Moses, just like King David, observed a flaw, albeit in himself, but he did not bring anything upon himself through mere words. It is important that one understands clearly from these two accounts that man possesses no ability to curse or bless in the commonly misunderstood sense. Man’s true curses and blessings are mere observations about negatives or positives in others, respectively. When man curses someone, he is simply defining a negative trait, but his words cannot effectuate any change in reality. What a wise man does when he curses, and this is only an act of a wise man, is to unveil a poor character trait in another person. Perhaps the person will desire to abandon this flawed character. Similarly, when someone blesses another, all he is doing is describing a positive, which causes the person to cleave stronger to that positive trait.
We learn that God’s will is that man is not elevated above Him. Many Jewish communities today make such a fuss over Rebbes and their blessings. Certainly we have proved that man has no powers. But from our study in this area, it would appear that overindulgence in man, any man…even Moses, obscures our focus on God and must be avoided as well. Nothing may steal man’s attention away from God. This theory also explains why King David could not build the Temple: his popularity due to numerous, military victories would overshadow the Temple’s status as “God’s” Temple. There was nothing wrong with his bloodied hands, as he fought on behalf of God’s fame, not his own. But when the people exalted him for his “tens of thousands”, they bestowed fame upon King David, and this threatened to steal the focus away from God. This could not be tolerated. God gave the Temple’s construction to King David’s son…not as a penalty, but actually a deferred recognition of King David’s zeal.
Our last question: Why did God erase Moses name from Tetzaveh, as opposed to any other Parsha? Write in with your suggestions. Good Shabbos to all.