After the high of receiving the Torah and instructions to build the Mishkan, everything comes crashing down in this week’s parsha after Bnei Yisrael build the Egel, the Golden Calf. Building this idol and serving it just one month after standing at Har Sinai was such a tremendous sin, that we still pay for it nowadays to a certain degree. Immediately afterwards, Moshe pleads with Hashem to keep His Shechinah present with Bnei Yisrael, and not put them under the responsibility of an administering angel (like all the other nations).
Hashem responds, “וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַֽהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ” “And He (Hashem) said, ‘My presence will go and I will give you rest” (Shemos 33:14). Listening to Moshe’s pleas, Hashem assures him that He will remain with the Bnei Yisrael. But Moshe was not finished. In the very next pasuk, “וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֨יךָ֙ הֹֽלְכִ֔ים אַל־תַּֽעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה” “And he (Moshe) said to Him, “If your presence does not go, do not take us up from here” (33:15). What is Moshe afraid of? Hashem just told him that He will continue on with the nation!
The pasuk uses the word “פנים”, “face” to describe Hashem’s presence, due to the fact that a face shows a person’s emotions, whatever they may be. So too, the mere fact that Hashem is present does not tell us if He is happy or angry with Bnei Yisrael. The commentaries all discuss which aspect of Hashem’s presence the Bnei Yisrael would be getting. The Kli Yakar explains this is how we can understand Moshe’s reaction to Hashem’s response.
Moshe pleads with Hashem not to leave the Bnei Yisrael in the hands of someone else, and Hashem replies that He won’t. He will take them through the desert and provide whatever is necessary to get them through the desert. However, He does not say whether He will remain with Bnei Yisrael with פנים of anger or mercy. Therefore, Moshe comes back and tells Hashem that he knows that Hashem will guide them through the desert, otherwise how could they make it through at all! But how would He guide them through, with a face of mercy or anger? Therefore, he says again, if You do not come with us, then don’t take us at all. If You do not guide us with mercy, there is no point in us even leaving here.
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