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Parashat Hashavuah: Ki Tissa

    Moses issues God with an ultimatum: forgive the sinners or erase me from your book. God ignores these two options. He’ll neither forgive the sinners nor erase Moses. Instead, God will erase only the sinners. Did God ignore Moses or have we missed something?

    According to Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Moses wasn’t talking about the book of the Torah. He was talking about the book of history: history itself, construed as a book. Moses understood that, at some point in time, God was going to change the past and write the Jewish people out of history, because of their sin. 

    Once the past has been edited, who will Moses have led out of slavery? To whom would he have delivered God’s teaching? Unless God forgives the sinners, Moses fears that all of his good deeds will be written out of history too. This isn’t an ultimatum. It’s a fear.

    God’s response is now appropriate. He informs Moses that however tightly intertwined the bad and good parts of history seem to us to be, He can edit out the bad parts while holding the rest constant. Moses, the Jews, and all of their good deeds will remain, but the sinners and their sins will be blotted out. 

    Ibn Attar isn’t the first to suggest that God can change the past. In the Talmud, God offers Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat to rewind time, to give him a second chance to attain some wealth (Ta’anit 25a).

    However counter-intuitive it may seem, ibn Attar takes a powerful lesson from this week’s parashah. To believe in an all-powerful God is to have grounds for hope, not merely that the future will be better than the present, but that the past will one day be better than it used to be.

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