28.1. The People Repent (33:1-6)

 (1) Then the Lord said to Moses, “Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring will I give it’ —

(2) I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites —

(3) a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way.”

(4) When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery.

(5) The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do to you.’ ”

(6) So the Israelites remained stripped of the finery from Mount Horeb on.

(1) Then the Lord said to Moses, “Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring will I give it’: The audience at Sinai has now ended. For now, God addresses neither the issue of replacing the broken tablets with a second set, nor the matter of correcting the effects of the calf incident. He only sends the people on to the Land of Israel – because that is their mission.

(2-3) I will send an angel before you … But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people: A person who has entered the grounds of the royal palace must adhere to much stricter requirements than the general population of the kingdom.

And likewise, the Almighty’s immediate presence among the people implies a much-elevated level of responsibility, with any violation leading to severe punishment. The people’s status is therefore diminished – for their own safety.

(4) When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery: The people receive this message about the lowering of their status as “bad news.” It is not enough for the Jewish people simply to have a successful material existence; rather, it is their calling to realize the Divine mission in the world. If realization of that mission is impossible, this is a reason to mourn.

(5) The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you’ ”: God’s original statement, “But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way,” could be understood as a punishment. The reaction to punishment will often be grief, and a plea for forgiveness.

But the revised wording, “You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you,” stresses that in fact this is not a punishment, but only a necessary measure to protect the nation itself from self-destruction. Given those circumstances, the people, instead of just asking for forgiveness, should be thinking about how to correct and improve themselves.

Now, then, leave off your finery: The literal translation is: “Now, then, remove your finery.” But didn’t the Torah state just above (v. 4), that “the people went into mourning, and none put on his finery”? Apparently, however, whatever finery they were already wearing at that point they did not remove, and here God commands them to do so. Removing external adornments forces people to think about existential questions.

And I will consider what to do to you: The final decision has not yet been rendered. If the people prove that they have truly repented, the Almighty is prepared to mitigate their punishment.

(6) So the Israelites remained stripped of the finery from Mount Horeb on: It is not clear what is meant here by “finery.” The Midrash states that after the Jews on Mount Sinai took upon themselves the covenant, the angels placed a crown on the head of each one of them. And now these adornments have been removed. In other words, this “finery” is the Jews’ sense of pride in being a party to the covenant.

Such a feeling of pride is an indication of the exalted status that a person has attained, but it also implies a great responsibility. Therefore, when the person behaves inappropriately, even to the point of committing a crime, then, apart from his feeling no sense of “adornment” from that earlier pride (“none put on his finery”), it even brings him actual shame (“the Israelites remained stripped of their finery from Mount Horeb on”).

This is a moment of profound repentance among the people. At first, they felt only sorrow, but now they are overcome by a sense of shame, and they truly repent.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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